It’s a new era for the NCAA and its member schools, which have long held on to the notion that college athletes are amateurs who should not be paid for their participation in sports or lured by financial incentives to certain programs. But since July 2021, when the NCAA started allowing athletes to make money through name, image and likeness (NIL) deals, questions and controversies have abounded — mostly because large paychecks for a sliver of top athletes blur the line between what’s permitted and prohibited under NCAA rules.
Inside athletic departments and among the most avid fans, high-profile NIL agreements have turned into eye-catching headlines that seem to indicate a dramatic shift in how college sports operate. Outside that insulated bubble on college campuses, however, the rule change has been met more with indifference, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.
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About half of Americans (48 percent) have heard “a lot” or “some” about the NCAA’s decision last year to allow college athletes to be paid when their name or image is used commercially, such as in video games or to sell merchandise. Among those who have heard about these NIL agreements, the majority (60 percent) say it “hasn’t made a difference” in their enjoyment of college sports. For those who say the rule change has made a difference, more than twice as many say it had a “positive impact” (28 percent) than a “negative impact” (11 percent).
The change is particularly popular among Black Americans who have heard about it, with 53 percent saying payments for athletes have had a positive impact on their enjoyment. The change is also relatively popular among Hispanic and younger adults who have heard about the change, with more than 4 in 10 of each group saying it has made college sports more enjoyable.
Athletic directors still worry, mostly because of the high-value deals that can appear to be recruiting inducements or pay-for-play agreements — a scene administrators would describe as chaotic and in need of uniform standards. States have uneven laws related to NIL deals for college athletes, including whether schools can be involved in the arrangements. The NCAA has a policy intended to guide athletes and schools, but the governing body has yet to firmly enforce those rules.
The NCAA is “asking questions. That’s about it right now,” said Tom McMillen, the president and chief executive of Lead1, an association that represents Football Bowl Subdivision athletic directors. “So if you’re an AD, you’re sitting there saying: ‘How far do I push the envelope? If I don’t push it enough, I’m going to fall behind. If I push it too far, I don’t want to be the test case for enforcement here.’ It’s a dicey environment.”
When the NCAA abandoned its long-standing belief that athletes should not profit off NIL deals, the organization announced a policy that sought to avoid a pay-for-play model and recruiting inducements. All deals needed to be a quid pro quo — the athlete provides a service for an entity and in return receives payment.
“I would say all three of those have been honored in the breach over the last year,” said McMillen, a former congressman who played 11 years in the NBA after his college career at the University of Maryland. He compared the NCAA’s rules to laws that prohibit jaywalking. “No one is prosecuting jaywalking,” he said, “but it’s occurring every day.”
Why does this possible rule-breaking matter? McMillen said: “I do think that college sports has to have a vision, and the vision has to be that it has to be tied to the academy, to the university.” Athletic directors “want to give athletes NIL,” McMillen said, “but they do not want to turn into mirror images of the NFL and the NBA.”
McMillen thinks fans would care about the long-term ramifications of a model that professionalizes college sports, which, he said, could include cutting other programs.
But one year into this NIL era, fans’ enjoyment of college sports hasn’t seemed to change. Even though Timothy Crawford, a 39-year-old in Dallas, believes college athletes should focus on their education rather than making money, the NIL rules haven’t affected his perception of the games. He could envision that changing if money-focused athletes led to a worse product on the court, but that hasn’t happened yet.
“It’s not something I really think about,” said 46-year-old Melissa Farenish, a self-described casual sports fan who lives in Central Pennsylvania and follows Bucknell basketball. “When you go to a sports game or you’re watching it on TV, you’re watching it simply for the enjoyment of the game, so I don’t really think about [NIL payments].”
Brett Zaniewski, a 25-year-old in New York City and avid sports fan, wrote an opinion essay during high school about how college athletes who generate millions of dollars for schools should receive more than scholarships in return.
“Now that there’s at least some ability to capture what the market deems is fair for them to make, [it] helps me appreciate [college sports] a little bit more,” said Zaniewski, a North Carolina basketball fan.
None of them mentioned the chaotic, unregulated scene that prompts worry among administrators. Lead1 surveyed FBS athletic directors and found that most are concerned that NIL payments from collectives — the third-party entities of donors who broker deals with athletes — are being used as improper recruiting inducements. But those deals can be hard to regulate because it’s tricky to define the fair market value for a player’s service.
McMillen envisions a future with what he describes as “Super NIL,” which could allow athletes to earn some money off television rights agreements and through group licensing deals without them becoming employees.
“I think there’s a way to give college athletes more money,” he said, “but do it based upon their name, image and likeness.”
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A 2017 poll conducted by The Washington Post and the University of Massachusetts Lowell found 66 percent of Americans were in favor of college athletes profiting if their image or likeness is used through the sale of merchandise. Athletic directors are also happy with their athletes having this opportunity, McMillen said. Many NIL deals are in alignment with how the NCAA envisioned these new rules unfolding: Olympian Sunisa Lee, now competing at Auburn, appeared in a Gatorade commercial. A regional pizza chain featured standout Maryland wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. in a social media advertisement.
College sports administrators want to rein in the deals on the extreme end of the spectrum. The NCAA issued guidance in May reiterating that NIL deals should adhere to the governing body’s rules related to recruiting and pay-for-play, referencing those collectives and how boosters are not allowed to be involved in the recruiting process. But publicly reciting the policy doesn’t guarantee sudden change.
“The cows are out of the barn here,” McMillen said. “Trying to put them back in is pretty difficult.”
The poll was conducted online May 4-17, 2022, among a random national sample of 1,503 adults by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement. The sample was drawn through SSRS’s Opinion Panel, an ongoing survey panel recruited through random sampling of U.S. households. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus- or minus-3 percentage points.