As new laws go into effect in Texas and other states, the NCAA moved Wednesday to allow college athletes to be compensated for use of their name, image and likeness.
In Ennis Rakestraw Jr.’s first year of college, the former Duncanville star cornerback learned many lessons, among them was the economic disparities of today’s collegiate athletics landscape.
“I didn’t know how much work college athletes put in and how much the universities make, while the athletes only make their stipend,” said Rakestraw, who started last year as a freshman at Missouri in the talent-rich Southeastern Conference. “But now that I’m in this situation, and I see it for myself, [athletes] are really getting (shorted out of) … a lot of money.”
Rakestraw is referring to college athletes he faced like Alabama wide receiver Devonta Smith, who signed a contract for over $20 million guaranteed after winning the Heisman Trophy and being selected in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Or athletes like former Wylie goalkeeper Sarah Fuller, who last fall became the first woman to play in a Power 5 football game. Her one kick for Vanderbilt, according to an estimate provided to CBS Sports, instantly raised the value of her social media platforms to over $160,000 per year.
“The things we do, we deserve something,” Rakestraw said.
That refrain has been argued for years, but this time college athletes like Rakestraw are about to have their chance.
The era of name, image and likeness (NIL) begins Thursday, which means college athletes will now be allowed to be paid beyond traditional scholarship limitations. Whether it’s autograph signings, or endorsements and advertising deals — from local and national businesses — college athletes can now make money and keep their college eligibility.
In a last-second move, the NCAA Division I Board of Governors on Wednesday approved an interim plan to suspend the rules preventing student-athletes from benefiting off their NIL.
In other words, athletes in states without NIL laws will also get to earn compensation for their likeness until a federal law or permanent NCAA rules are adopted.
It took years for college athletics to reach this juncture, but now that it has, the group that’s been boxed out of getting a piece of the pie is now grabbing a seat at the table.
Nellie Drew, a sports law professor and director of the Center for the Advancement of Sport at the University of Buffalo Law School, described this moment as a “game-changer” in March, as dozens of states started making progress on NIL laws.
Four months and a historic wave of legislation later, and the NCAA is staring down 24 individual NIL bills in states across the country, with a couple more on the way to get signed by governors.
Of the many issues facing the NCAA, few top the logistical nightmare of having to address the slew of different bills across the country, along with the dozens of other states with no NIL law.
Despite starting efforts to update its NIL plan in 2019, the NCAA still isn’t done and opted to wait on federal legislation from Congress that has yet to pass, forcing the interim NIL policy.
The upshot, Drew noted, is that this issue didn’t exactly sneak up on the NCAA.
Between the explosion of media rights and opportunities along with O’Bannon v. NCAA and the sheer amounts of money going into suit pockets, this trail is hardly made of bread crumbs.
“This is a period of transition,” Drew said. “And quite honestly, the piece that still stymies me is the fact that this was entirely foreseeable. This has been developing over the course of decades. As soon as the O’Bannon case was filed, there should have been some anticipation that we need to rethink how we’re doing this.”
Drew added, “The problem, of course, is that a lot of people have a lot of skin in this game as it is currently constituted. People did not want to relinquish the status quo.”
Tim Nevius, a former NCAA investigator who became a college sports lawyer, says the only reason state laws are passing is the NCAA’s refusal to change its NIL rules, even 12 years after the O’Bannon case was filed.
“Twelve years later, and just days before the first state bills go into effect, they still don’t have a plan. It’s inexcusable neglect, particularly for a multi-billion dollar industry,” Nevius said. “The lack of willingness to adapt and the insistence on clinging to an outdated rule structure is an absolute disservice to the athletes that this organization suggests it defends and promotes.”
Long-term plan or not, changes are about to come to the NCAA, and the effects could be immediate.
Starting Thursday, Icon Source — a company that’s connected brands to athletes and celebrities since 2019 — is set to launch its collegiate platform. Simultaneously, hundreds of profiles belonging to college athletes that have already been created will populate in the system.
Immediately, companies will be able to offer endorsement deals directly to athletes in an interface that Icon Source vice president Drew Butler compares to Zillow for real estate, or match.com for dating.
“In simple terms, we’re the marketplace,” said Butler, a former college and NFL punter.
Butler said Icon Source operates as a streamlined “conduit” for deals between college athletes and businesses — an “agnostic” third party designed to facilitate opportunities. For a 10 percent fee from both parties, Icon Source will connect companies and athletes, generate contracts, keep compliance data and provide tax documents.
Icon Source is one of many companies set to step into the NIL era. INFLCR, which Icon Source has partnered with for compliance purposes, has also teamed up with multiple universities to educate athletes on NIL opportunities. Opendorse and Twitter have partnered to help student-athletes monetize their tweets, as well.
It’s a new market with plenty of opportunities, and college athletes will be at the center of it.
“Brands are undoubtedly looking to activate student-athletes,” Butler said, “and that’s the most exciting part. This is a historic day in college sports, and we’re happy to be at the forefront of it.”
‘Shift in power’
Nevius predicts this era will be looked back on as a signal to a “shift in power” toward athletes that will continue in that direction, a view echoed by many after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the governing body of college athletics in NCAA v. Alston last week.
The unanimous decision in the antitrust case upheld the lower court’s decision, stating that the NCAA’s restrictions on education-related benefits for student-athletes were in violation of antitrust laws. While this wasn’t a pay-for-play case, experts believed at the time that it could prove to be the latest major domino to fall before even larger changes could potentially come.
In a concurring opinion from Justice Brett Kavanaugh that Drew called “breathtaking,” the justice grilled the NCAA, writing “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate.”
“The NCAA is not above the law,” Kavanaugh wrote.
The shift in power toward student-athletes that Nevius and Drew both pointed out has been a long time coming. The historic moment is “encouraging,” Nevius said, but he is also met with disappointment for how long it took for student-athletes to see progress.
“My disappointment is a result of seeing this business from the inside and the real-life consequences it has on athletes and their families,” Nevius said. “The NCAA often refuses to acknowledge the devastating outcomes of far too many college athletes and their families, particularly when they’ve been used and then discarded.”
‘Now I’ll have the chance’
Caden Sterns, a former safety for the Texas Longhorns, never got to experience the benefits of NIL, and neither did the thousands of other college athletes before him.
Sterns, a fifth-round pick of the Denver Broncos, played his final season for Texas this past year. After it was finished, Texas decided to fire head coach Tom Herman, paying him and his staff a $24 million buyout. According to Bloomberg, the total of buyouts for Football Bowl Subdivision coaches last year was approximately $65 million.
After firing Herman, Texas hired former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian for a guaranteed $34.2 million contract over four years. In college sports, Sterns was aware of the money being earned by everybody but the players who generated it.
“You [players] can’t benefit or make money off your own name, but you see coaches with multimillion-dollar contracts; you see them in commercials and you see them having agents,” Sterns told The News in February. “And then you contradict yourself by calling this an amateur sport.”
For Rakestraw, Thursday is a day to be excited about.
When Rakestraw was at Duncanville, he went from being under-recruited to sought after by some of the best schools in the country. He was named The Dallas Morning News’ Defensive Player of the Year. He chose Missouri over Alabama and became a starter in his first season.
Rakestraw has noticed, with his rising image, that he has a platform. And with that, he has an opportunity to make money for himself, all while he’s in college. It even motivates him as a football player — because the better the play could mean better the pay.
“I’ve never been the richest, and I’ve never been the poorest, but I’ve never had money for myself,” he said. “Now I’ll have the chance to make money and use it how I want to use it.”
Rakestraw added, “It’s going to be great for me. I’m just happy it happened to me while I’m in college.”