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  • Writer's pictureAndy Gilles

The impact of NIL on college sports

by Andy Gilles

If you're a sports fan, you've heard the term "NIL" mentioned a lot this past year.

It stands for "Name, Image and Likeness," and while the details can get complicated, the point is pretty simple -- it's all about college athletes getting paid for their fame.

The ability for players to have NIL deals was restricted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association until 2021, and now it's a Wild West of money-making for the top college stars. 

Just before the NCAA opened up NIL opportunities for student-athletes, a joint survey in 2020 by Sportico and the Harris Poll found that 62% of fans favored the idea of athletes getting paid for their publicity. 

That support had grown to 74% by August 2023.

How the NIL came to be

The NCAA’s mission statement when established formally in 1906 was to “provide a world-class athletics and academic experience for student-athletes that fosters lifelong well-being.” 

Since those humbling beginnings, the NCAA has continued to regulate collegiate sports at universities across the country. The organization provides rules for athlete eligibility, standards for university facilities, protocols for hiring coaches and recruiting as well as regulating scholarships. 

Once a determined administration against the growth of NIL in the collegiate world, the NCAA in 2021 was swarmed with pressure from multiple sources in allowing athletes to earn monetary compensation for their achievements. 

However, this wasn’t an issue that just happened overnight. The problem began in the 70s and 80s as athletic boosters secretly bribed recruits with gifts, special treatment and cash. This seedy underworld was exposed in a big way in 1987 with Southern Methodist University.

SMU had been paying players for years, but the revelation of a $61,000 slush fund operated by boosters (including Gov. Bill Clements) finally got the NCAA's attention, and it exacted the death penalty on SMU. The punishment shut down the Mustangs' football program for two seasons, stripped away scholarships, and banned the football team from playing home games for the 1988 season. SMU returned to the field in 1989, but the effects of the sanctions were severe, and they didn't win a conference game again until 1992.

But as college sports began to grow in popularity and revenue for the schools, a rift was emerging over the imbalance. College athletes were helping to bring in millions of dollars to universities over their athletic prowess, yet the athletes weren't getting anything beyond a scholarship. Even their ability to earn money through employment was curtailed by NCAA rules, saying athletes could not make money that exceeded the amount of a full scholarship.

The unfairness of this policy came to a head in 2004 with standout running back Reggie Bush. Bush was severely punished for taking benefits from NFL agents before he finished playing college ball. The 2004 Heisman Trophy winner was ordered to relinquish his trophy, and the football program had to erase its 14 victories with Bush between 2004-05.

This heavy hand from the NCAA ultimately led to a lawsuit challenging NCAA rules that restricted student-athlete compensation and the commercial use of their name, image and likeness. The NCAA is fighting to regain some control but without much success as it currently faces an anti-trust lawsuit from a contingent of college student-athletes.

Universities were always able to provide free or discounted education for student athletes through athletic scholarships, while NIL allows those student-athletes to earn beyond their scholarship for further help.

Student athletes were also not allowed to get paid for internships/jobs that would exceed their tuition - important for athletes who weren’t wanting or given the opportunity to play professionally after school. During the summer, student athletes were allowed to have a summer job, but couldn’t be paid more than the regular wage. 

California became the first state to pass a formal NIL law in 2019, allowing college athletes to be paid for their name, image, and likeness. 

NCAA officials called it “harmful," “unconstitutional” and an "existential threat” to college sports - but more than 20 other states would try and follow suit within the year. 

On June 21, 2020, the NCAA’s appeal to continue applying restrictions on NIL took a serious blow when the Supreme Court ruled against its argument to receive special antitrust treatment because of its academic mission - and the first batch of state laws allowing states to issue their own NIL laws went into effect that July.

Today, the NCAA is still trying to lobby Congress for a federal law giving it back some control over NIL. 

NIL’s impact on fans

Sports fans appear to be very mixed on the issue surrounding NIL in collegiate sports today. 

While a lot of positive feedback has been shown around the growth of NIL for collegiate athletes, sports fans and their opinions are arguably the most important in helping drive the success of a team.


The question during this time however, may not simply be if public support is so much in favor of NIL, but rather the restrictions on NIL deals themselves. 

“The top schools have just been turned into, you know, money machines and basically pro athletes in college,” stated Richard Gilles, an avid Kentucky sports fan.

Gilles would have preferred the NCAA direct NIL money to "insurance" for players who get hurt while playing their sport.

While disagreements among collegiate athletes have not been known as a wide scale issue due to NIL, the drive to earn some cash while playing the sport you love is a goal every athlete wants to achieve. 

A lot of fans recognize the direct impact monetarily NIL can have for athletes. 

“Before the NIL, these athletes couldn't even go out and get a regular job because of the scrutiny that was placed on 'em. “It allows them to be able to stay in college and have a little bit of income, to stay stable,” states Gilles. 

Josh Kanes, a University of South Carolina student and fan, resonates with this same feeling. 

“I didn't think it was, like, very fair that they could go and play for a school and make the school a lot of money and not make any money themselves,” he said.

On the contrary, fans also question where the line is drawn for NIL deals and some other routes it should take. 

Alex Undorf, a lifelong Philadelphia sports fan, expressed a common theme with fans. 

“NIL is a good thing but it needs to be regulated somehow,” he shared. 

Ongoing impact of NIL on college athletics

Four years after NIL went into effect, the amount of money going to college athletes is staggering.

Contrast those earnings with starting 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, whose four-year rookie contract is only $3.7 million.

While NIL deals are mostly sought out from businesses and brands, athletes must also be aware of how to be marketable in the NIL landscape.

Tom Bower, President of Athlete Advantage which deals with education for athletes about NIL deals, provides a positive light on NIL deals for student athletes.

“NIL is actually an added tool to sports as a whole because now a player or an athlete has even more reason to make good grades, to be an upstanding citizen, to serve, besides just staying on the court," he said.

Bower said student athletes can use the motivation of NIL deals to boost their marketability both outside the sport and within the game itself. 

As of February 2024, NIL looks as if it is here to stay in collegiate sports for years to come.

A Tennessee Federal District Court ruled that the NCAA cannot interfere or prohibit NIL negotiations between athletes and universities. 

The ruling “covers the entire country, preventing the NCAA from enforcing its NIL rules against any school and giving student-athletes latitude on signing deals.”


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