As another signing period for college recruits approaches, the first batch of prospects in the NIL era has a new variable to consider when deciding where to attend school: their money-making opportunities.
All NCAA athletes are now able to make money from selling the rights to their names, images and likenesses, but not all athletes are playing by the same set of rules. The restrictions and opportunities that athletes face for these new deals vary based on the state where their school is located. There are 28 states with some type of NIL law on the books. Which of them open the most doors for athletes, and which have the most potential to limit future possibilities?
According to new rankings from the National Collegiate Players' Association, New Mexico has the top set of legal protections for college athletes looking to make money while in school. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Southeastern Conference did not fare well. Eight of the 10 states with the poorest ratings are in the SEC footprint. The laws in Alabama and Mississippi (along with Illinois) were tied for last place on the list.
The NCAA changed its rules in July to allow college athletes to make money. In the months leading up to that date -- before it was clear what, if any, changes the NCAA would make -- state legislators raced to introduce bills that would ensure their schools weren't left behind. While most of the principles are similar, each state has its own wrinkles that were negotiated on the bill's path to becoming a law. New Mexico, for example, is the only state that allows athletes to accept food, housing and medical bill payments without having to do anything in exchange for them. Many states have different rules about the types of products athletes can endorse, when and where they are allowed to endorse them, who can pay them (booster restrictions) and how a school must prepare their athletes for the new rules.
The NCPA identified 21 substantial differences in the restrictions and protections created by these laws and gave each of them a numerical score based on the language they deemed to be most helpful for athletes to create the "NCPA Official NIL Ratings." NCPA founder Ramogi Huma said college prospects should prioritize a good fit above all else when choosing a school, but those who could be in line to make money while in college would be smart to weigh the differences in state laws.
"These factors are going to be significant," Huma said. "These factors can literally determine how much a recruit ends up earning as a college athlete, and even the risk."
So far, these NIL differences haven't caused any major shake-ups among the usual recruiting powerhouses. When early signing day arrives for basketball programs in less than three weeks, Duke and Kentucky are expected to have the top two recruiting classes despite being in states with laws that rank in the bottom half of the NCPA's list. All 10 teams currently at the top of ESPN's football recruiting rankings signed a Top 25 class last year before the NIL rules were established.
While the different laws may not currently be creating broad shifts or obvious advantages in recruiting (as many feared in the lead-up to NIL rule changes), they could present unique positives and negatives for individual athletes. Illinois, Mississippi and Texas -- for example, are among the few states where an athlete could be punished for signing endorsement deals during the time period between when he or she signs a scholarship agreement and the time of enrollment. Huma says those differences are worth considering.
The NCAA had hoped to eliminate those differences by creating a more prescriptive, nationwide set of rules with the help of Congress. A federal law might still be in the works, but it's not clear when that would arrive if it ever does. Disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill about how broad the law should be have grinded progress to a halt.
"A federal standard is necessary to create a level playing field, but any action Congress takes must deliver for the people who have always mattered most in college sports -- the athletes," said Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), a former Georgetown volleyball player who helped lead a recent hearing on the subject. "That means guaranteeing them the maximum freedom possible to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness in the way they choose."
Without any imminent national laws arriving to even the playing field, it's possible that states could start to push to revise their legislation to make sure it's not holding back their schools in recruiting races. Lawmakers who authored bills in Alabama, Mississippi and Illinois did not respond to questions about whether they were reconsidering any of the specifics in their language. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order this summer that ranks 17th of 28 schools on the NCPA's NIL ratings. A spokeswoman from his office said this week they were watching to see if any changes are needed to their law.
"We are continuing to monitor developments in this area and are committed to ensuring that North Carolina continues to be a great place to get educated and play sports," she said.
There are also 22 remaining states without any kind of NIL legislation. The NCAA has advised schools in those states to create their own policies for how athletes can make money. In some cases that's created opportunities for those schools to provide fewer restrictions for their athletes. For example, BYU helped facilitate a deal for all of its football players to receive money from a protein bar company. That kind of involvement on the school's part would be illegal in several of the states with NIL laws.
Huma said the lack of a law can also be dangerous for athletes as well. The NCPA, which advised lawmakers in at least a dozen states as they considered legislation, recommends that all states pass laws so that the athletes' rights are guaranteed.
Several of those states considered legislation in the past year, but have not yet passed anything. Many of those lawmakers decided to wait to see what was necessary after the NCAA changed its rules or dropped the topic down their priority list while anticipating Congress would create a federal law. Nate Boulton, a state senator in Iowa who was among those pushing for NIL legislation in his state last spring, said he is still watching the landscape closely but isn't in a rush to pass the law.
"My approach is a little bit of wait and see," he said. "There probably will be situations that come up that give us concerns, and we want to make sure our athletes are protected."
Athletes in those states without laws are also continuing to ask their representative to codify the changes despite having plenty of success in making money with the new rules thus far. Washington State defensive lineman Dallas Hobbs said he's had conversations with the state's governor and Sen. Maria Cantwell to encourage action on the state and federal levels.
Hobbs said he's been able to use the new rules to promote his freelance graphic design work, sell clothing and become the co-founder of a brewery in Spokane, which is set to open soon after the football season ends. He said all athletes should be making sure they understand the nuances of what's allowed based on where they are going to school.
"I think having a state law is super important," Hobbs said. "A lot of people think it's all-encompassing, but there are some states that have laws that don't address all the benefits that are needed. Those things you think are small can end up being a big difference in the long run."