How a call from UConn put CT on the path to allowing college athletes to profit and what comes next

How a call from UConn put CT on the path to allowing college athletes to profit and what comes next

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As lawmakers in states around the country move toward allowing college athletes to profit off of their name, image, and likeness, Connecticut was taking a wait-and-see approach as the legislative session entered its final two weeks.

But with the NCAA and the federal government showing no signs of acting before state laws are enacted on July 1, Connecticut’s most visible college sports program took action. UConn officials connected with Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, during the last week in May and asked if his previously-proposed NIL legislation could be revived, allowing athletes to be paid for everything from apparel endorsement deals to social media posts.

Slap, chairman of the higher education committee, drafted an amendment and attached it to a previously-filed higher education bill. The bill was passed by the House this past week and Slap expects the Senate to pass the legislation before the session ends Wednesday.

Just like that, Connecticut would join 18 states with a law on the books that will enable college athletes from profiting from their name, image, and likeness.

How did it happen so swiftly?

“UConn called and said look, we’ve really got a problem here,” Slap said.

Last month, Slap said the state was poised to wait for the NCAA or the federal government to act. Slap proposed a bill last year, but the legislation stalled amid the COVID-19 shutdown.

The new version is virtually the same. A key difference: athletes can immediately earn money as opposed to last year’s bill that included a provision preventing freshman from participating in NIL benefits. Slap said that clause was suggested by UConn as means of creating distance between NIL rules and the recruiting of athletes — an issued rendered moot by the NCAA’s loosened transfer rule.

If passed — Slap said the Senate could vote Monday — the law would be into effect on Sept. 1.

Five states (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and New Mexico) have NIL laws going live on July 1. Arizona’s law starts July 23, while Nebraska and Oklahoma have laws that enable schools to grant rights to athletes immediately.

Arkansas, Tennessee, Nevada, and South Carolina have laws set to be enacted over the next year. Another 20 states have bills under consideration or close to being passed.

There are also eight federal bills, but there’s no sign they will be passed before athletes can begin monetizing their name in five states on July 1. The NCAA has considered a plan for over a year, but the governing body has given no indication it will act soon.

That’s why UConn, faced with the prospect of being left behind in the NIL race, made its last-ditch pitch.

“Dave [Benedict, UConn’s athletic director] expressed concern, not only I think for recruitment purposes as early this summer, but also potentially losing current student-athletes right now because all of a sudden we would be in a real competitive disadvantage,” Slap said. “That’s what changed. It was late in the process but we’ve been able to work with our Republican colleagues, that’s helped. … I know UConn has reached out to legislative leaders, as well, kind of explaining why they have a sense of urgency.

“You have the legislators who, for a whole bunch of different reasons, support this. For some, it’s about equity and it’s about civil rights and that end of the issue. And for others, it’s about fair market, capitalism and you know, that these student-athletes should be able to make what their worth. There’s something for everybody to like.”

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

The origin of the NIL movement was California’s September 2019 legislation that prevents schools from taking athletic scholarships from athletes deriving money from endorsements, a law the overrides NCAA rules. The California legislation becomes law in January 2023, although the state could accelerate the timeline as more state pass bills.

While the NCAA initially balked at the California law — President Mark Emmert dubbed it an “existential threat” to college athletics — the organization’s working group drafted a plan in 2020 that would provide guidelines for schools and athletes. But the NCAA failed to act on the plan early this year.

Big East head Val Ackerman, a co-chair of the working group, recently said the plan would be needed to avoid “chaos” of individual state passing NIL laws.

“The word messy has been used a lot in conversations I’ve been part of in the last few weeks and I think that’s probably an accurate description of what this is going look like,” Ackerman told Hearst Connecticut Media.

Why the mess?

If, say, Florida allows athletes to profit from their likeness and Connecticut doesn’t, UConn would be at a decided recruiting disadvantage. An athlete might choose a Florida school because they can generate income in one state and not the other.

Hence, UConn’s sense of urgency.

HOW WILL ATHLETES PROFIT?

Let’s start with the biggest college star in the state: UConn’s Paige Bueckers.

Bueckers came to UConn with a healthy social media audience. She was considered a generational talent with a national brand.

So Bueckers can benefit financially as a social media influencer. Bueckers can endorse products through social media and profit on her fame — which was burgeoning before she came to Storrs and has only grown as a member of Geno Auriemma’s iconic program.

In the NIL debate, Bueckers is often used as an example of an athlete at the top of the earnings chart. But athletes of all levels will be allowed to earn money based on who they are and they do well — it could be a hockey player paid to work at a camp, a tennis player earning money for instructions, a football player selling an autograph.

Even those who don’t possess Bueckers’ social media might can collect some money for a paid social media post.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Last month, Slap bemoaned the prospect of Connecticut becoming the last state to pass NIL legislation. Ironic, because the state’s two U.S. senators — Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal — are both harsh critics of the NCAA and each has sponsored bill that will allow college athletes to financially benefit from endorsements, among other things.

There is still a possibility that federal lawmakers will either coalesce around a bill or force the NCAA to pass a set of guidelines. Until then and starting on July 1, NIL guidelines will be patchwork of state laws.

But that structure is untenable, Blumenthal told Hearst Connecticut Media last month. that’s why a national standard must be composed.

“Which … 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.”

paul.doyle@hearstmediact.com

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