Athletes at Virginia colleges, unpaid stars in one of America’s richest sports entertainment enterprises, could be compensated for the first time for the commercial use of their names, images and likenesses under new state legislation.
Three bills, one by a Democrat and two by Republicans, await action in the just-opened 2020 General Assembly. All are similar to a 2019 California law that entitles college sports stars to a share of the billions of dollars in annual sales of video games, apparel, videos, memorabilia and other merchandise tied to their individual renown.
It’s part of the growing challenge facing the nation’s dominant intercollegiate sports sanctioning body, the National Collegiate Athletics Association, from legislation, litigation and scandals. Virginia joins a fast-growing roster of at least seven states now considering so-called “name-image-likeness” bills since California enacted the first NIL law last summer according to Tim Nevius, a New York lawyer who specializes in representing college athletes and their families.
The bills, by Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, achieve the same objective: prohibiting a school or any athletic conference or national body from interfering with a student-athlete’s ability to earn money from a person or business that wishes to profit off the athlete’s name, likeness or image. The NCAA and collegiate conferences currently forbid participants in all its sanctioned sports from receiving payments from companies that pocket billions of dollars off the on-field accomplishments and identities of the nominally amateur competitors.
The bills also would allow college athletes the right to engage agents or attorneys to help them manage their marketing and licensing, while prohibiting various conferences and associations or their affiliated Virginia schools from declaring the student-athletes ineligible or revoking their scholarships.
“It’s outrageous that colleges can generate millions – actually, billions – from these athletes, and yet some of these kids can’t even afford to buy a plane ticket to go home and see their families,” said Miyares.
A lawyer by profession, Miyares questions how one class of students is somehow denied contractual rights because of anachronistic notions of amateur athletics.
“If we were dealing with poetry majors or philosophy majors who were among the best in their field and they enter and win competitions, they’re able to accept money for that,” he said. “The NCAA has been utterly tone-deaf on this issue.”
Philosophy or poetry competitions don’t fill massive stadiums and showplace arenas jammed with fans who pay thousands for season tickets, Miyares noted. They don’t land television contracts worth hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. Their coaches, instructors or advisers don’t bank millions annually for their services.
Athletes at big-time sports schools see a system awash in cash where their share is limited to a scholarship that varies in value from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars a year, depending on the institution. They’re required to put in 40-50 hours a week in practice, film study and, during their sport’s season, extensive travel to game venues on top of academic study and class time. Should they take a handout from a generous alumnus or booster, they subject their school to NCAA penalties and risk being ruled ineligible. They also see those who move on to pro leagues making millions of dollars playing the same sports.
The California law forced the NCAA last October to take a first step toward allowing limited compensation of college athletes for use of their identities. The NCAA’s Board of Governors directed leaders of the NCAA’s three divisions (the largest schools to the smallest) to update their bylaws and policies on the issue “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.” It would not include compensation from their colleges or universities.
Athletics representatives at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech – both members of the nationally pre-eminent Atlantic Coast Conference – would not comment. A Virginia Tech spokesman referred the Virginia Mercury to the ACC’s headquarters, where there was no response to a request for comment. UVA referred its inquiry to the NCAA which, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Virginia Commonwealth University said in a statement that it “supports the concept of permitting student-athletes the opportunity to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness.” VCU said it is following the legislation and wants to “keep VCU student-athletes “on par with those in states that have already passed similar legislation.”
The legislation offers something for the political left and the right. Because it addresses a fairness issue that critics of bigtime college sports say disproportionately penalizes poor and minority athletes, it holds appeal on the left. Miyares said that he believes conservatives and libertarians will warm to it because it champions unimpeded universal access to free markets.
Nevius, a former NCAA infractions investigator who left a lucrative position as a labor and employment lawyer with a major U.S. firm to open his own practice representing college athletes and their families, said public sentiment is moving behind the athletes’ position. Headlines about federal investigations into the college entrance cheating scandal involving celebrity and wealthy families’ alleged efforts secure their children’s admission to elite universities — including intercollegiate athletics programs — have cast an unflattering light on college athletics.
“We’ve seen significant efforts through legislation, litigation and public pressure in the past few years to help student-athletes,” said Nevius, who founded the nonprofit College Athlete Advocacy Initiative as a resource for college athletes and their families.
Besides Virginia, he said, he knows of NIL bills now pending in Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, South Carolina, Illinois and Michigan with more likely. And while it’s easier than it was to push for such measures than it was a decade ago, it’s still challenging to rebut the NCAA’s powerful messaging capabilities.
“It’s still difficult to appeal to the public on certain points because the NCAA is a multibillion-dollar propaganda machine that continues, through so many communications channels, to perpetuate what I call the myth of amateurism,” Nevius said.