MAC Media Day: Conference, coaches hope for additional guidance on NIL standards

Since July 1, college athletes across the nation have gotten the opportunity to cash in on their popularity.

This does not mean amateurism is dead. Schools still cannot directly pay athletes for all of their physically-demanding hours of work that they put in every week.

What it does mean is that a college athlete can now use their name, image, and likenesses (NIL) to receive paid (or other tangible) benefits through promotions, sponsorships or endorsements. For example: Mission BBQ, a chain restaurant that has five locations in Illinois, has already reached agreements with the offensive line groups at Wisconsin and Notre Dame.

“I don’t know if they got a free meal out of it or a (specific sponsorship) out of it,” said Brayden Patton, a returning sixth-year senior and starting center at NIU, “but I think it’d be cool for maybe the whole offensive line to maybe get sponsored by a restaurant and be able to go and get a dinner there sometime.”

To many around the room at Tuesday’s Mid-American Conference Media Day event, this new era of NIL in college athletics is fresh, sort of confusing, pretty exciting, a little bit simple, and very non-uniform.

The NCAA found itself in a position where it had to accept this new chapter of modern college sports after the Supreme Court handed down a 9-0 decision in October 2020 against the NCAA in NCAA v. Alston. The case was centered around whether or not college athletes should be able to receive third-party, educational benefits.

On June 29, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed SB 2338 into law, which allowed college athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses as of 12:01 a.m. July 1.

The same day SB 2338 became law, NIU announced that COMPASS would be the platform its athletes received assistance from to help navigate their ways through NIL opportunities. COMPASS is developed by CLC and Game Plan — two of the nation’s leaders in trademark licensing and athlete education.

On June 30, the NCAA formally announced its recognition of NIL, and said it will not interfere with players seeking compensation through those means – just as long as athletes follow the guidelines set by their state and school.

“Unfortunately, I think (the NCAA) opened up Pandora’s box and didn’t have a whole lot of rules and regulations in place,” NIU head coach Thomas Hammock said. “As a coach, we are removed from helping as far as being directly involved. So who’s helping these young men make decisions? That’s something that can be changed. Give them the information and the tools where they can make good decisions for what’s best for them long-term.”

In his opening speech, MAC commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher also, and more boldly, shared his thoughts on the need for more national reform on the subject.

“It is unfortunate that we do not have a single national standard guiding us,” Steinbrecher said. “It is a challenge to run national champions without national standards of conduct. Quite frankly, this is a failure by the entire association, and reflects a lack of strategic direction and execution.”

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, Steinbrecher said he paid attention to the conversations that college football’s gatekeepers were having. He also checked the archives of what happened last time big, sweeping rule changes in college athletics came through the land.

In Steinbrecher’s research, college athletics did not crumble when full-scholarship players were finally allowed to have jobs. College athletics even survived the advents of universal transfer policy and cost-of-attendance stipends.

“In each case, you would’ve thought that the entire enterprise of intercollegiate athletics was about to collapse based on feedback from many of the practitioners,” Steinbrecher said. “Quite frankly, that’s nonsense. If we, as an association of member institutions cannot figure out how to be nimbler – to change and adapt without going though such extreme contortions – then the NCAA is at risk. And that risk is that someone else will make those decisions for the enterprise of intercollegiate athletics.

“Frankly, our current NCAA governance system is not efficient. Our system of developing, evaluating, and ultimately implementing regulations does not always provide for ultimate outcomes.”

National uniformity is realistically months – if not years – away from happening, but players can start seeing some benefit now.

At NIU, Hammock’s doing his part to make sure his freshmen-heavy roster isn’t getting to big-eyed in this new world. He’s telling his guys to not put the cart before the horse. And if you’re going to profit off of NIL, you better earn a likeness to your name and image first.

“The thing I tell my guys about NIL is that if you don’t play well, it’s hard to make yourselves marketable,” Hammock said. “I’m excited that young men have the opportunity to make some earnings. I don’t see it changing much for us unless you become a big-time player. And everybody sort of understands that.

“If guys have aspirations for the NFL, you understand that your brand is how you play. And the better you play, the better your brand. So let your play speak for itself.”