Is NIL Poison or Fertilizer for Student-Athletes?

Former athletes, professors and activists discuss the fledgling program’s impact and what needs to improve.

By: Chris Kudialis
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Dave Meluni grew up playing baseball in upstate New York. He was one of very few athletes talented enough to earn a roster spot at the university level.

Meluni didn’t get a scholarship when he played for NCAA Division III Ithaca College from 1997 to 2000, but he rubbed shoulders with plenty of Division I peers, whose tuitions were covered by their respective schools,  in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. 

Approximately half of the players he faced in the NECBL, an annual summer league for college players, would go on to be drafted into Major League Baseball. Some eventually made their big league clubs’ rosters and actually played at the highest level. Yet despite the promise they showed as collegiate athletes and, more importantly, the impact they had on their schools, many were still broke by the time they moved on.

Meluni scored a graduate assistant marketing job at Florida State, where the football team had just won a national championship. He then moved to Syracuse, where 18-year-old freshman Carmelo Anthony led the school’s basketball team to its first national title in more than 75 years. Meluni saw first-hand the hundreds of millions in revenue generated by the schools’ athletics successes. Endowments skyrocketed as boosters opened up their checkbooks; businesses banged down the doors for the chance to become sponsors; student applications soared; and season tickets became the hottest commodities in town.

The athletes’ thanks for it all? Nothing, at least financially. In fact, student-athletes who received any money for their time on the field, court or ice would be suspended and sometimes even banned permanently

Universities regularly found themselves in hot water after their athletes, required to be full-time students in addition to juggling their rigorous practice and game schedules, inevitably sought compensation for their success. Athletic boosters, sportswear brands and even coaches tried countless ways to help them, defying NCAA rules at the time. For some athletes, the money was a way to cash in and start saving for the future. But for most, it was about making ends meet.

“So much of the revenue they helped raise instead went to coaches and athletic directors because the athletes themselves couldn’t get paid,” Meluni said. “It was an unbalanced setup that ultimately left many of the players high and dry.”

Thankfully, those days are mostly over. In July 2021, the NCAA allowed college athletes to start benefiting from their name, image and likeness. The NIL policy meant it was no longer out-of-bounds for the athletes to profit by starring in ads or signing autographs. NIL has since become a lucrative way for thousands of the country’s roughly 500,000  NCAA Division I, II and III athletes to pay their bills.

Thanks to NIL, some of the country’s most recognizable college jocks have made millions of dollars. Even high school athletes are starting to cash in. Big-name college players have cited the deals as reasons to stay in school an extra year or two instead of turning professional at a younger age. High schoolers have credited NIL for their decision to become student-athletes in the first place, instead of jumping directly to the pros from high school.

But as the NIL landscape transforms amateur sports, has it gone too far?

It depends on who you ask.

A Golden Era

Meluni spent nearly two decades in sports marketing and sales before joining Syracuse University’s Sport Management program as an assistant teaching professor in 2018. In 2021, he developed and received state approval to teach the country’s first course on NIL. The class has become the program’s most popular, with athletes from each of Syracuse’s 20 varsity sport teams having enrolled at one point and a waiting list that’s more than double the size of the 40 available class seats. 

Meluni recently added a second NIL class to meet demand. Not surprisingly, that course is filled this semester. He described the NIL era as a “golden opportunity” for athletes to become entrepreneurs.

“I love how athletes are using their social media presence,” he said. “Everybody can do that, and I try to tell them that engagement is everything. I teach them to support brands they like and have constant communication. Quality over quantity is huge.”

Meluni noted that NIL’s success has gone beyond just Division I athletes. He cited Bre Socker, a field hockey player from Division III St. John Fisher in nearby Pittsford, New York, as one of many examples. Socker built a following on Instagram and Tik Tok after designing colorful headbands for athletes to wear while competing. She found an investor to take her idea on, and Treadbands was born. Socker has since become an online influencer for several other apparel, nutrition and restaurant companies.

“There are a lot of different, legitimate avenues here for the athletes,” Meluni said.

Other athlete activists aren’t so sure.

‘Pay for Play’ and the Spirit of Amateurism

Andrew Zimbalist has taught in the economics department of Massachusetts-based Smith College since 1974 and has served as president of the non-profit Drake Group since last summer. Drake Group has operated for 20 years to “combat the influences of money in college athletics” and Zimbalist has been among its dozens of scholar-members calling on the U.S. Congress to rein in the growth of “collectives” — groups of alumni and boosters that essentially recruit athletes in the NIL era by paying them directly. 

Collectives typically offer inducements that are very straightforward, Zimbalist said. The pitch to athletes? Come to our school and the money is yours. No autographs, commercials or corporate appearances are required.

“Collectives are turning the NCAA into a ‘pay for play’ labor market,” he said. “These developments suggest that students aren’t far away from becoming employees. And when that happens it’s going to bust the system apart.”

Zimbalist claimed that two years of NIL has created “complete chaos.” Although the Drake Group supports athletes profiting from their name, image and likeness, Zimbalist and company want the spirit of amateurism to remain at universities. The emerging model of collectives threatens to turn the relationship of “teacher to student” into “employer to employee,” he said.

Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player and head of the Los Angeles-based National College Players Association, says collectives are simply bringing to the surface the countless “pay for play” deals that have taken place for decades under the table.

Huma, who rose to national prominence in 2015 after attempting to lead a group of Northwestern University football players to unionize in Illinois, said pretending the $15 billion college sports landscape was anything but a monopoly built on free labor would be “a total lie.”

“NIL has become possible in recent years only because Americans stopped believing the façade of college sports as amateurism,” he said. “College sports are professional sports. Coaches get millions of dollars, some athletic directors are making millions, and even conference commissioners are making millions.”

Huma, like Zimbalist, said Congress will likely be the main player in shaping NCAA and NIL legislation going forward because state governments are “all competing with each other” to ensure their respective major universities can continue to attract top athletes. Although the NCPA isn’t necessarily against players being induced, Huma said he publicly supports regulating collectives so that Congress won’t step in to “overregulate” NIL as a whole.

“College athletes have rights,” Huma said. “Plain and simple. We have to keep moving forward while ensuring we protect the progress we’ve already made.”

Multiple interview requests to the country’s eight largest NIL collectives all went unanswered.

Chris Kudialis

Chris Kudialis

Reporter

Chris Kudialis is a veteran reporter and editor with experience covering some of the world’s most significant political and sporting events for a number of the country’s largest news outlets. His regular beats include education, cannabis legalization and NBA basketball.


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