Marvellous Iheukwumere is a rising 3L at Harvard Law School and an incoming online content chair for Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law. Prior to attending law school, Marvellous was a track & field student athlete at Columbia University. After college, Marvellous joined the NBA’s front office where she assisted with compliance and business affairs in the league’s Legal Department. She also competed professionally and ended her track career as a 2016 Nigerian Olympic Trials Finalist. Marvellous can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this year which has been rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, police brutality, and the abrupt ending of 2020 spring and fall college sports, Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) legislation is still a silent victory. Questions surrounding NIL will continue to linger with growing uncertainties around the future of college sports. In terms of where things stand, I have a few answers to these potential questions. I’ve lived different lives as a D1 student athlete, NBA sports-business professional, and Harvard Law JD Candidate; I’ll provide my varied perspectives on the NIL and its future below.
Student Athlete Perspective
I ran track and field at Columbia University all four years, won eight conference championships, qualified for D1 NCAA Track & Field Nationals, and broke school and conference records. I did not receive a penny for any of those feats. However, I found out years later that my coaches collected bonuses from my accomplishments every single year. I was never compensated for any instance in which my name was mentioned in a news article or any time my sprinting images were featured in a school newspaper and used for marketing purposes, plastered on a university agenda book, meet schedule, meet guide, you name it. Nothing.
Along with my identity as a student athlete at Columbia, another identity that I carried and continue to carry with me is that I am a Black woman and an immigrant from Nigeria. I come from an underserved and underrepresented community and background. For many student athletes like myself who come from a similar background, the ability to capitalize off of individual name, image, and likeness at the time would have provided not only a chance to make money but also agency and access to upward mobility. It would allow me, a Black woman and accomplished student athlete, to both own my narrative and realize the benefit of my achievements instead of striving hard to rack up bonuses for my affluent head coach.
The Ivy League does not offer athletic scholarships, but I was able to attend Columbia University for free because of exceptional financial aid and outside scholarships. Although I had eyes set on Arizona State University and other schools I had considered during my official recruiting trips, I chose to go to Columbia because of the better combination of academic and athletic opportunities. Had I not received multiple outside scholarships, I would have been working odd jobs to afford groceries when the dining halls were closed, buy a plane ticket home to Texas, and meet the high cost of living expenses associated with New York City. My parents could not afford my tuition or afford to send me allowances for school, so I relied heavily on my outside scholarships and money I saved from my summer internships. The summer before my junior year, I lived with three other classmates in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights. We fit four people in a one-bedroom apartment to save money that we so badly needed. It often took decisions and sacrifices like this to ensure that I would have money to get by for the next school semester.
Today, the NIL is powerful. It provides an avenue for student athletes to own their narratives, talk their talk, walk their walk, and also earn coin. For example, students could do sponsored posts or teach interactive sessions on social media — the room for creativity is endless. Of course, some names will have a bigger draw and some schools already create more buzz than others, but the wonderful thing about the NIL is that it is an equalizer for all athletes. Anyone can theoretically capitalize off of this new opportunity. Yet, even with seemingly equal opportunities for athletes to utilize the NIL, there is also the lurking burden of gender inequity, racism, and the drastic difference in types of opportunities available for less popular sports. For example, will women athletes be subjected to ads and partnerships that are overly sexualized and objectify women? Will women be paid less for essentially identical opportunities? Will schools and boosters make more of an effort to help athletes capitalize off of NIL that they know will bring more money to the school? Will booster associations in traditionally segregated areas of the country afford the same opportunities to athletes of color to capitalize off of NIL? questions largely remain in this uncharted territory of the NIL.
Former Sports Business Professional Perspective
The four years I spent working at the NBA opened my eyes to the world of player unions and the importance of establishing labor unions for professional athletes. A silver lining from the COVID-19 pandemic and the upending of college fall sports is the possibility for players to create something akin to a student athlete’s union. Collectively, this group can negotiate athlete-friendly terms for student athletes under the proposed NIL legislation. The most recent NCAA proposal before Congress asked for antitrust protections, and authority to craft all rules on athlete compensation and determine athlete eligibility based on their NIL ventures. Essentially, the NCAA wants the widest scope of power to restrict athletes’ access to the NIL, further depriving these athletes.
Union cooperation with sports leagues and vice versa can be beneficial for all parties. If student athletes come together to successfully advocate, the NCAA should listen and cooperate. . In the context of NIL, these recent examples show that a collective action and a union can prove powerful bargaining tools and resources to draw attention to relevant causes.
A sports business lens also illuminates the myriad opportunities that exist for student athletes. International student athletes can leverage audiences from their home country, college town, and the US. Student athletes with unique skills such as acting, singing, or playing an instrument can showcase their talents and earn money through unique partnerships. Altogether, the NIL legislation can be a business win for all parties involved – student athletes, potential sponsors, and the NCAA.
Future Lawyer Perspective
As it stands, the current NIL legislation allows athletes to have agents or lawyers who would help them secure NIL deals. This is huge. Imagine a young lawyer who has a fairly robust network of collegiate and professional athletes. Such lawyers who are particularly knowledgeable in contract negotiation, IP/Copyright, and media partnerships would instantly be valuable for this emerging field of talent. It’s exciting. I think about my experiences as a college athlete, professional athlete, NBA front-office employee, and now as a future lawyer, and the market of college athletes is ripe with opportunities to leverage my diverse backgrounds. Another silver lining around this NIL legislation is the opportunity to evaluate student athlete rights. One of the motivating factors for me to apply to law school was to obtain the legal knowledge to interpret athletes’ rights, especially for the most underrepresented – Black and immigrant athletes. Senators Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal are leading the effort to create a bill of rights for college athletes. Their recently proposed College Athletes Bill of Rights will amplify the voices of college athletes in the rule-making process and provide more robust health and safety standards, educational opportunities, and ways to make money. The NCAA has long abused the rights of its athletes, many of whom come from underrepresented communities and seek athletics as a way out, making the current power imbalance especially problematic. The NIL legislation and all the conversations around it could be a vehicle to better protect the rights of student athletes and reevaluate the NCAA’s rules. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that 2020 has been the year of change, flexibility, and pivoting. It’s time for major disruptions in the NCAA.
There is ample room for improvement for college athletics, and while the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled game days across the country, there is now more time to iron out and perfect the NIL legislation. Despite the uncertainties that lie ahead and the NCAA’s attempts to gain control, the passage of NIL legislation will be a win for college student athletes everywhere. I support it and hope it develops fully to benefit ALL college student athletes.