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By: Georgia Roda-Moorhead, Ethics and Policy Intern

Countless student-athletes at Division I schools have achieved celebrity status since starting their athletic careers. Every year, fans flood football stadiums to get the quarterback’s autograph and drop hundreds on their favorite player’s basketball jersey at the student store. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill) is no exception to this phenomenon. If you go to UNC-Chapel Hill, chances are you have snapped a paparazzi-esque picture of a beloved student-athlete on campus. You’ve probably also seen Armando Bacot’s Carolina-Blue Audi cruising down Franklin Street or Deja Kelly repping “Team Dunkin’” merchandise on social media following her recent brand deal with the company.

Although countless Division I athletes have become household names nationwide, they could not reap a single cent from their likeness until recently. In NCAA v. Alston, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the NCAA could no longer enforce rules restricting certain education-related benefits that its members offered to the student-athletes because those restrictions violated antitrust laws. When Governor Roy Cooper signed an Executive Order following the Supreme Court’s decision, North Carolina became the 28th state to allow student-athletes to receive compensation for using their name, image, and likeness (NIL). Effective July 2, 2021, student-athletes in North Carolina could also benefit from NIL deals.

The policy change has so far proven to be immensely profitable for universities. UNC-Chapel Hill athletes reportedly earned over $1 million in the first year of NIL. This is a conservative estimate since athletes are not required to document these deals with the athletic department, and only one-half of NIL deals were reported.

It is safe to say that NIL is a step in the right direction: athletes can now profit from their brand and pursue entrepreneurial ventures within and beyond the sports world. Through its “laUNCh” program, for instance, the UNC-Chapel Hill athletic department has fostered partnerships with over a dozen groups to help athletes navigate NIL deals. The laUNCh program has successfully empowered 27 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes to hire marketing agents as of the 2021-2022 academic year.

The NIL world is not all sunshine and rainbows, however. The ACC has yet to establish consistent regulation across states, so the system is plagued with amateurism and an utter lack of transparency. In response, college administrators and athletic directors are now demanding standardized national rules to promote fairness in the recruitment process. ACC commissioner Jim Phillips echoed these concerns about NIL’s effect on recruitment: “The lack of a single enforceable standard for NIL across the schools and all states has created an environment where inducements inaccurately labeled as NIL are disputing recruiting.”

Boosters, which the NCAA Division I Board of Directors defines as “any third-party entity that promotes an athletics program, assists with recruiting or assists with providing benefits to recruits, enrolled student-athletes or their family members,” have played an integral role in this new approach to athletic recruitment. Boosters can enter into NIL agreements so long as they operate independently of a university and its athletic department and do not push contracts that compel athletes to enroll in a particular institution.

Despite these provisions, numerous cases indicate Boosters directly contribute to recruitment outcomes. For example, the University of Texas’s Clark Field Collective gave $50,000 to every Longhorns offensive lineman on scholarship. Built Brands followed suit and provided free tuition for all of BYU’s walk-on players. University of Miami Booster John H. Ruiz spent roughly $7 million towards NIL deals and signed 115 athletes to deals. The kicker is that these organizations are unlikely to face repercussions for securing commitments through NIL.

Unsurprisingly, the NCAA’s recent one-time-transfer policy has only exacerbated bidding wars for top players. Matt Rhule, Head Coach for Nebraska Football, confirmed in a recent interview that a “good quarterback in the portal costs $1 million to $1.5 million to $2 million right now.” The impact of NIL deals on collegiate athletics – both good and bad – raises the ethical question as to the role and responsibility of the student-athlete. In a world where they are both a student and an athlete, which is the priority: student or athlete?

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