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New NCAA NIL Rules May Result In More Olympians Staying In School

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at August 7, 2021

Every four years, college athletes who excelled at the Olympics were left with an unenviable choice at the close of the Games: They could either continue on with their college careers or cash in on their fame. For these Olympics, however, things are different because the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s new name, image and likeness (NIL) policy removes that tough decision by allowing athletes to pursue both financial security and an education.

On June 30, the NCAA adopted a temporary rule change that now permits college athletes to profit off the commercial uses of their NIL. Thus, college athletes may now seek out endorsement deals without fear of losing NCAA eligibility.

Take Sunisa Lee, the 18-year-old gold medalist in the gymnastics women’s all-around final at this year’s Olympics. Later this month, Lee will begin her freshman year at Auburn University, where she will compete for the Tigers in gymnastics. In fact, a day after winning gold in Tokyo, Lee stated that she looked forward to just a couple of weeks off before heading to Auburn. She said taking a brief break before becoming a college freshman was how she intended to celebrate her gold-medal performance.

With Lee having made the choice to leave elite gymnastics for the college experience, her fame is likely at its zenith, meaning that now is the best time for her to capitalize on her celebrity status via lucrative endorsement deals. Fortunately for Lee, she can.

Laurie Hernandez, however, did not have the same opportunity following her participation on the U.S. gymnastics team that won the gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Hernandez, who was 16 at the time, captivated fans in Rio with a performance that earned her the nickname “Baby Shakira.” In fact, her newfound fame propelled her into appearing on, and eventually winning, Dancing With the Stars in November 2016. To make the most of her Olympic fame, Hernandez chose to forgo a chance to compete for the University of Florida’s gymnastics team. For past Olympians like Hernandez, the NCAA’s amateurism rules required them to turn down endorsement deals and other commercial opportunities involving the use of their NIL in order to start or continue their collegiate athletic careers. Fortunately, the game has changed as college athletes no longer have to make that tough choice.

The NCAA’s control over college athlete NIL started to unravel back in 2013, when the United States Courts of Appeals for both the Ninth and Third Circuits, in two separate cases, recognized that video game producer Electronic Arts Inc. did not have a First Amendment right to use college athletes’ NIL in its sport video games without compensation. The next big blow to the NCAA’s control over athlete NIL came in September 2019, when Governor Gavin Newsom of California signed into law Senate Bill 206, the Fair Pay to Play Act. The Fair Pay to Play Act was the first state legislative act to prohibit universities within its legislative control from constraining college athlete NIL rights. Yet California would not be the last to act on this front; many other states would go on to pass similar NIL laws, with Florida’s NIL law being the first to go into effect, on July 1, 2021.

The starting date of Florida’s NIL law forced the NCAA’s hand by pressuring the adoption of a new NIL policy on June 30. The NCAA’s present policy permits athletes to engage in NIL activities that are consistent with state law. The new policy also allows college athletes to work with agents to assist them in securing and negotiating endorsement deals.

Accordingly, current Olympians will not face the same NCAA-imposed barrier to their collegiate participation because they can secure endorsements even as they pursue their collegiate dreams.

The chance to cash in on Olympic success is particularly important for swimmers, gymnasts and track stars who do not have well-funded professional sport leagues waiting for them at the close of their collegiate careers. In fact, Dr. Thilo Kunkel, director of the Sport Industry Research Center at Temple University and founder of SPRTER, believes that the new NIL rules will make a major difference for college athletes following the close of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Dr. Kunkel, who conducts research on athlete branding, believes the NCAA’s new NIL policy will best help college athletes from less advantaged backgrounds by allowing them to provide for themselves and their families while also earning a degree.

For some Olympians, the spotlight they currently enjoy will start to fade over the next few weeks and will not spark again until the torch is next lit in Paris in 2024. For many others, however, there exists only one shot at Olympic glory and the financial benefits that follow. Thus, the NCAA’s new NIL policy should help collegiate Olympians make the most of their limited time in the spotlight, without forcing them to sacrifice their time as a college athlete.

As for the rest of us, the NCAA’s new policies may afford fans of college sports with more opportunities to see the best athletes in the world compete for their colleges and universities.

And that seems like a win for everybody.

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