What is NIL, how has it changed college sports and why are schools under investigation?

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You’ve seen the three letters: NIL.
You’ve heard the buzz these three letters have caused around college sports, read headlines about universities filing lawsuits against the NCAA on the issue and watched commercials of athletes like LSU gymnast Livvy Dunne tumbling while wearing Vuori joggers or USC quarterback Caleb Williams drinking Dr. Pepper.
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But what does NIL — “name, image and likeness” — encompass, and why is the line between what’s within the rules and what isn’t so difficult to discern?
Here’s a breakdown of the acronym that has changed college sports:
What is NIL? How’d we get to this point in college sports?
NIL stands for “name, image and likeness” and has become the universal shorthand for college athletes’ ability to become paid endorsers and monetize their success outside of their school-funded scholarships and benefits. Before July 1, 2021, college athletes were not permitted to receive profits from their name, image and likeness. Since then … a lot has happened.
That summer, in response to pressure from laws passed by state legislatures that permitted varying levels of NIL activity, the NCAA created an interim NIL policy: For schools in states with laws on the books, the state law would guide them; otherwise, schools could set their own policies. The NCAA maintained that NIL opportunities could not be used as a recruiting inducement or as payment tied directly to athletic performance (colloquially referred to as pay-for-play).
However, the introduction of one type of permissible market for players’ services made clear just how much most players had been undervalued during the preceding decades. Some prominent stars landed TV commercials and personal sponsorships, but countless others entered into financial agreements with less obvious deliverables for the people or organizations paying them. Quite predictably, the NIL deal has become a recruiting tool and a de facto pay-for-play device, with fans and donors, rather than the universities themselves, footing the bill for players to represent their schools. Almost three years later, most Division I college football and basketball players are earning some money, with average deals in the five-figure range but many going into six figures and beyond. Additionally, the school plays a major factor in an athlete’s earning potential through NIL deals. But unlike most coaching salaries, NIL deals are private transactions between private citizens and mostly privately funded companies, so few concrete numbers exist in the public record.
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What is an NIL collective?
Collectives are organizations that fundraise via large and small donors with the intent to direct that money to a school’s athletes through NIL deals. Collectives are not formally associated with schools or athletic departments themselves, but they do exist to benefit certain programs, and their names, staffing and activities make that clear. Some school officials, including athletic directors and coaches, have openly directed fans to donate to specific collectives, and some staffers have even left their posts with the school to take leadership roles with their program’s corresponding collective.
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Collectives can pay athletes, but for athletes to remain NCAA-eligible, they must prove they completed a deliverable service in return for the payment. This can be through autographs, appearances at events for donors, appearances in commercials or participation in content the collective may distribute privately or publicly.
However, according to guidance issued by the NCAA in May 2022, 10 months after NIL activity was first allowed, collectives are banned from recruiting activity in the same way that school boosters have long been banned from recruiting activities. Under even more recent guidance, collectives cannot contact prospects about NIL opportunities before an athlete has signed with the school, and players can’t announce or enter into agreements with collectives before they’re enrolled in school.
How collectives and college programs work together
In the early days of NIL, athletic departments could not have formal discussions with collectives, though it was widely accepted that off-the-books conversations happened. The NCAA has since loosened those guidelines and lowered the walls between collectives and athletic departments, and coaches and athletic department employees can now promote collectives and help them fundraise. They can arrange for donors to give to collectives, but not to specific athletes or sports. Coaches and athletic department personnel can sign autographs or assist in fundraising but cannot donate directly to a collective.
Like much of the NIL world, proving that athletic departments and collectives are only discussing what they’re allowed to discuss, and not broader roster strategy and player acquisition goals, is difficult if not impossible.
Where does the NCAA stand on NIL?
One of the NCAA’s first pieces of official NIL guidance, sent to schools in May 2022, stated that collectives count as boosters and are subject to the same, long-applied recruiting rules. In short, collectives cannot be involved in recruiting, and they can’t entice a recruit to sign with a particular school with the promise of payment. This murky line has been the focus of most of the organization’s enforcement efforts on a market that has proven difficult to wrangle.
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The NCAA has said for months it was looking into potential NIL violations, but information on cases had not bubbled up publicly until recently.
In January, the NCAA’s Division I Council approved a set of consumer protection rules around name, image and likeness. Among them: Athletes will be required to report to their schools NIL deals worth more than $600, including term details, compensation and service providers. (Some state laws already require this.) From the aggregated data, the NCAA will create an anonymized database of that information as a way to get a more accurate sense of the market. How specific the database will be, such as listing an athlete’s sport or position, is yet to be determined. The NCAA also plans to create a voluntary registry of NIL service providers and agents, meant to provide a pool of credible options for athletes.
The NCAA is also working through proposals that would allow schools themselves to have more of a direct role in NIL negotiations and deals.
Which schools’ NIL activities are under investigation right now and why?
The first program punished by the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions (COI) was Miami women’s basketball, which received one year of probation and recruiting sanctions through a negotiated resolution with enforcement staff in February 2023. The resolution detailed that Miami coach Katie Meier facilitated impermissible contact between prospective transfers Haley and Hanna Cavinder and booster John Ruiz before the Cavinders’ commitment to the school.
Last month, Florida State football agreed to penalties after assistant coach Alex Atkins gave a prospective transfer a ride to a meeting with a collective during a recruiting visit. The Seminoles were given two years of probation; scholarship and official visit reductions and limitations on recruiting communication over the next two academic years. Atkins was given a two-year show-cause order and suspended for the first three games of the 2024 season. The athlete, identified as Georgia offensive lineman Amarius Mims, later removed his name from the transfer portal.
Florida is currently under investigation for its widely publicized 2022 pursuit of high school quarterback Jaden Rashada, who signed with the Gators after a wild NIL bidding war involving boosters at Florida and Miami. However, Rashada then asked for a release from his letter of intent when a Florida collective reneged on a deal it had signed. Rashada landed at Arizona State.
Additionally, the NCAA’s ongoing investigation of Tennessee for alleged name, image and likeness violations in multiple sports has recently spilled into public view via scathing statements from university brass and a lawsuit filed by the attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia challenging the NCAA’s ban on using NIL in recruiting. The investigation reportedly is focused in part on Spyre Sports — a collective unofficially associated with the University of Tennessee — and its activity in recruiting, specifically around Volunteers starting quarterback Nico Iamaleava, who committed to Tennessee in March 2022 within 10 days of The Athletic reporting on a four-year, $8.1 million NIL contract between a five-star recruit and a school’s collective.
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At the heart of all of these cases, the line where NIL information becomes a recruiting tool is the subject of debate. Where does education about potential NIL opportunities for a prospect end and inducement begin? And how does the NCAA prove an athlete was induced by an NIL deal and didn’t sign with a school for other reasons?
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What’s next?
The normalization of NIL has spurred record activity in the transfer portal and multiplied the stress coaches face in putting together a roster year to year. Coaches have lamented the need to constantly re-recruit their players, protecting stars from being lured away by schools touting more lucrative NIL opportunities, all while trying to sell potential newcomers on the strength of your school’s NIL situation.
Proposals working their way through the NCAA governance model would allow schools themselves to have more of a direct role in NIL negotiations and deals.
But the one thing everyone agrees on is that the current system is unsustainable.
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(Photo: Isaiah Vazquez / Getty Images)

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