In the absence of a national standard, the patchwork of state laws that govern how college athletes can monetize their fame has been likened to the Wild West. As Congress weighs whether to enact legislation that would bring coherence to the widely disparate name, image and likeness rules, commonly referred to as NIL, a prominent athlete-advocacy group has developed a rating system to help recruits negotiate this uncharted terrain.
The National College Players Association’s “Official NIL Ratings” debuted Thursday. It gives each state a grade on a scale of 0 to 100 percent, with the top marks accorded to states with laws granting college athletes the greatest freedom to negotiate and sign NIL deals.
The idea, said NCPA executive director Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player, is to give college recruits and transfers a means of evaluating how much latitude they’ll have to profit from their fame in weighing scholarship offers — just as they might weigh one school’s athletic facilities, coaching staff and conference affiliation against another’s.
“When you go through the recruiting process, oftentimes the decision is very difficult because many schools seem so similar,” Huma said. “But when it comes to NIL, it couldn’t be further from the truth in terms of rights and freedoms. Our hope is that it helps provide a road map for recruits and transfers to navigate this process.”
The ratings are based on 21 criteria that help or hurt athletes’ rights to monetize their fame in the view of the NCPA — whether they want to sign endorsement deals to promote products among their Instagram followers, launch their own T-shirt lines, get paid for autograph signings and appearances, start an offseason sports camp or something else that involves payment.
A state with an NIL law that helps college athletes in every category would score 100 percent, while one that restricts athletes’ freedom in the marketplace would be rated worse. A state with no NIL law is rated 0 percent.
Of the 28 states with NIL laws, New Mexico earned the NCPA’s highest rating at 90 percent. Three tied for lowest, at 43 percent: Alabama, Illinois and Mississippi. Maryland earned the highest mark (81 percent) among the 11 states that are home to the Big Ten’s 14 schools. Virginia is among 22 states without an NIL law (in such cases, the NCAA permits each school to set its own rules) and received a 0 rating.
The NCPA hopes the rating system will encourage state legislatures to enact NIL laws (or revise existing ones) that would give college athletes maximum freedom to monetize their fame and influence. Any infringement, in its view, constitutes an improper restraint of trade.
The NCPA has been among the leading advocates of college athletes’ rights to earn money beyond NCAA-approved scholarships and stipends. Although the courts signaled they were moving toward granting college athletes such freedom, the NCAA failed to enact an overarching policy before July 1, when some state NIL laws went into effect, leading to the current ad hoc system.
Troubled by the inconsistency in their conference, athletes representing the 15 ACC schools wrote a letter to Senate Commerce Committee leaders in September urging them to enact a federal NIL bill. They warned that the current landscape, in which some players have more financial opportunities than others simply based on their school’s location, is unfair and unsustainable and will skew recruiting.
In some states, they noted, ACC athletes can use their school’s logo and team colors in promotional deals; other states prohibit that. In some states, universities can broker NIL deals for athletes; other states bar schools from that role.
“These conditions are completely dependent on where student-athletes are located and therefore under which NIL laws they are governed,” the ACC athletes wrote. “Consequently, there are stark recruiting advantages and disadvantages that can influence where student-athletes complete their collegiate eligibility.”
It’s much the same in the Big Ten, in which Maryland, in the NCPA analysis, came closest among the member schools’ states to getting its NIL law right, with the NCPA citing four (out of 21) restrictive aspects of its law in its grade of 81 percent.
Illinois, which earned a league-low 43 percent, was flagged for 12 restrictive aspects of its law. Among them: It includes a market cap that can limit athletes’ NIL pay; it doesn’t allow NIL deals for recruits who sign with colleges until they enroll or start mandatory sports participation; and it doesn’t allow NIL deals that continue after an athlete transfers.
Such disparities and widespread confusion over the application of NIL rights have been the focus of several congressional hearings. Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), a former Georgetown volleyball player, has attributed the current mayhem to the NCAA’s decades-long refusal to address athletes’ fundamental rights in the billion-dollar college sports enterprise.
“Most alarmingly, athletes now face a patchwork of regulations across state lines,” Trahan said in a statement on the eve of a September hearing by the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce. “Federal action is necessary to create a standard that preserves college athletes’ right to be compensated for their name, image, and likeness no matter the state they’re in.”
While there appears to be broad congressional support for intervening, lawmakers are divided between enacting NIL-specific legislation or a set of broader-based laws and policies that also would protect college athletes’ health and safety via guaranteed coverage of sports-related medical bills, extend scholarships until athletes earn a degree and put more teeth into Title IX enforcement, among other issues.
As that deliberation continues, the NCPA believes college athletes, potential transfers and current recruits need a tool now to help them negotiate the dizzying array of NIL laws. And if states enact NIL legislation or loosen overly restrictive laws to get a more favorable rating from the NCPA, so much the better.
“There’s no telling if Congress will act,” Huma said. “States really have to control their own destiny on this issue in the way they feel is appropriate.
NCPA’s state-by-state ratings
New Mexico — 90 percent
Maryland — 81 percent
Missouri — 81 percent
Oregon — 81 percent
California — 76 percent
Nebraska — 76 percent
New Jersey — 76 percent
Ohio — 76 percent
Colorado — 71 percent
Michigan — 71 percent
Montana — 71 percent
Nevada — 71 percent
Arizona — 67 percent
Connecticut — 67 percent
Pennsylvania — 67 percent
Kentucky — 62 percent
North Carolina — 62 percent
Texas — 62 percent
Louisiana — 57 percent
Tennessee — 57 percent
Arkansas — 52 percent
Florida — 52 percent
Georgia — 52 percent
Oklahoma — 52 percent
South Carolina — 48 percent
Alabama — 43 percent
Illinois — 43 percent
Mississippi — 43 percent
These states received a rating of 0 percent because they have no NIL law: Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
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