UConn is prepping for athletes to profit off themselves, but Connecticut lags behind other states on laws allowing it

Photo of Paul Doyle
The UConn Huskies huddle up during intros prior to the first quarter against the Arizona Wildcats in the Final Four semifinal game of the 2021 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at the Alamodome on April 02, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. 

The UConn Huskies huddle up during intros prior to the first quarter against the Arizona Wildcats in the Final Four semifinal game of the 2021 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at the Alamodome on April 02, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. 

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The door will swing open on July 1, when five states adopt laws allowing collegiate athletes to profit off their own name, image and likeness.

Within a month, Arizona will join Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and New Mexico. Nine other states will implement NIL laws over the next few years and a handful of bills are percolating at the federal level as lawmakers push for a uniform set of guidelines.

Meanwhile, NCAA president Mark Emmert told the New York Times that members must act quickly and address the issue this summer.

Yes, college sports as we know it about to change.

“NIL is coming,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who co-sponsored college sports legislation in December 2020. “No question. It’s just an issue of when, and whether it takes more states or whether the NCAA and its constituents of colleges will be smarter and accept a strong standard.”

Blumenthal’s bill, co-sponsored with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, is known as “Athlete’s Bill of Right.” That’s not the only bill from a Connecticut senator — longtime NCAA critic Chris Murphy teamed with Massachusetts Rep. Lori Trahan to propose legislation in February.

Yet it seems unlikely a federal law will be enacted soon, leaving states to create a patchwork system until the NCAA acts.

UConn officials have been watching and planning, waiting for guidelines from the NCAA while seeking outside assistance. Like many schools across the country, UConn will use an outside consulting firm to help navigate NIL rules for both the school and the athletes.

While the new terrain may force schools such as UConn to bolster its compliance staff, athletics departments are using outside help.

“We are preparing for the passage of NIL in the very near future,” UConn athletics director David Benedict said. “Like many other institutions, our plans include partnering with a third party that specializes in this space and will help us to educate, inform and serve as a resource for our student-athletes.”

Benedict said UConn will also work with David Noble, director of the school’s Peter J. Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The goal is to educate student-athletes as they are handling new opportunities to make money.

And the education can include everything from guidance on taxes to investments.

“(The Institute) links an ecosystem of resources, programs, academic courses, funding, mentorship, education, and activities relating to entrepreneurship and innovation throughout the university,” Benedict said.

The outside help will also be a vital component for structuring the new world. Sports Illustrated estimates that as many as 150 platforms are available to assist athletes and schools in the NIL era. Opendorse, a marketing company used by more than half the Power Five schools, was one of the first companies to consult on NIL rules.

“Schools had no choice,” said Sam Weber, senior director of corporate marketing for Opendorse. “They had to embrace it because (NIL) is coming.”

STATE DISPARITIES

The challenge for Benedict and UConn, of course, is surviving in the short-term. Besides the 15 states with laws pending, 12 others have bills in the legislative process. That includes neighboring states New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Despite Connecticut’s vocal U.S. Senators, the state currently has nothing in the legislative pipeline in Hartford. State Sen. Derek Slap (D-West Hartford) proposed a bill last year, but it was sidetracked by COVID-19 and there is nothing pending in the current session.

Slap, though, said he is planning to revisit the issue next year.

“I think the timing will work out,” Slap said. “We’ll see if the NCAA does anything. There are other states that are moving. It would be nice if Connecticut isn’t the last state.”

Slap has talked to UConn officials and he found support at the Capitol when the legislation was discussed last year. He also expects support to increase as lawmakers see other states address the issue.

“This will be imperative because unless there is federal legislation … the states that don’t do it will be at a distinct competitive disadvantage,” Slap said. “If you’re an athlete and you’re considering where to go, there are some states where you’re going able to capitalize on your name, image and likeness and others where you can’t, that makes the decision easier.”

Schools are already sending that message to recruits. Central Florida plastered players’ Twitter handles on the backs of their jerseys during the school’s spring football game.

“We’ve been saying that the future of college football is right here at UCF,” coach Gus Malzahn told reporters. “This is a new age of personal branding. We’re going to embrace it.”

Embrace it, and signal to future players they can monetize their name and likeness at UCF.

And it’s not just up-and-comers like UCF using NIL as a recruiting tool. Notre Dame, perhaps the most venerable name in college sports, is putting players on digital billboards with the athletes’ hometown and — wait for it — Twitter handle.

The message is that the football program attracts players from all over the country. The secondary message conveyed by the Twitter handle is that players can cultivate their brand under the Golden Dome.

At UConn, Paige Bueckers could monetize her image with her vast social media reach. But it’s not just athletes at the level of Bueckers who will benefit from NIL.

“It could be the varsity tennis player who in the summer just wants to make some money at a tennis camp and they’re not allowed to do that,” Slap said. “Anyone who says, ‘We’ve got to keep the money out of college sports’ … that’s just laughable. People are making billions of dollars. The question is, who’s getting a piece of this?”

FIRST, CALIFORNIA

The first state to pass legislation was California in September 2019. The law, which will begin in January 2023, prevents schools from taking away athletic scholarships from athletes who earn money from endorsements.

The NCAA addressed the issue over the ensuing months and more states began passing legislation last year.

Yet as states are on the verge of enacting NIL laws, the NCAA has yet to act.

“They could have had control over this,” Slap said. “If they had started tackling this a few years ago or longer, they could have done this in a way where we’re not going to have a piecemeal system all over the country.

“The NCAA, they’ve been on the clock. Their time is about to expire.”

Blumenthal said the issue has been of particular interest at the federal level — often with bipartisan support — and NCAA has seemingly asked for help from lawmakers.

It’s unclear when a federal law will be passed, but the proposed pieces of legislation prod the college sports industry from all sides. The sweeping Blumenthal-Booker bill, for instance, would require “revenue-generating sports to share 50 percent of their profit with athletes from that sports after accounting for cost of scholarships.”

The NCAA and its member schools may be incentivized to construct its own set of NIL rules rather than risk a revenue-sharing model passed by Congress.

So the pressure is on.

“The pressure has become irrefutable and irresistible, which is why they are now coming forward,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal believes NIL legislation will pass at some point, but it may take “accumulation of states” to drive a bill out of Washington.

“Which, by the way, frequently happens in consumer protection,” Blumenthal said. “Different states will pass different consumer protection laws and then all of a sudden an industry decides it wants a national standard rather than a patchwork of different laws that raise difficulties in compliance.”

Blumenthal, Murphy, Booker — who played football at Stanford — and other lawmakers have also insisted the NCAA reach beyond just NIL in reforming the system. They have talked about health and safety, about honoring scholarships beyond a playing career, and about assisting in education.

Whether the NCAA is ready to embrace sweeping changes remains to be seen. The NCAA has a proposal that would allow schools to veto some money-making opportunities for athletes if the deals conflict with the institution’s existing sponsorships. There are proposals that would prevent athletes from earning money as freshmen, which supporters believe would help monitor the recruiting process of high school students.

Will an NCAA set of guidelines supercede state laws? Maybe not and the NCAA may be acknowledging as much by seeking a federal resolution.

But lawmakers in Washington may be after far-reaching change.

“Speaking very bluntly, college athletics is a huge mega-billion dollar business,” Blumenthal said. “It defies the image of amateur sports. And athletes have been really treated unfairly for years, in fact decades.

“Athletes deserve some share. They’re the ones that produce those billions of dollars, their blood, sweat, and tears. And sometimes their injuries that may impede their education and sometimes their lives.”

paul.doyle@hearstmediact.com