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College Athletes Cash In on New Sponsorship Rules

Student-athlete sponsorships are here.

An 11th-hour vote by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Wednesday opened the gates for college athletes to begin benefiting from their name, image and likeness (NIL) starting on Thursday before the July 4th holiday weekend. The decision came hours before NIL laws in nearly a dozen states were scheduled to go into effect.

College athletes have acted quickly in the short time since. Trey Knox, a wide receiver with the Arkansas Razorbacks, partnered with PetSmart. Fresno State’s twin basketball stars Haley and Hanna Cavinder endorsed Boost Mobile and the nutritional supplement company Six Star. Louisiana State University quarterback Myles Brennan signed deals with Smoothie King and local restaurant Smalls Sliders.

Thought it appears no college athlete has yet been tied to a sportswear heavyweight like Nike, Adidas or Under Armour, several have either partnered with a smaller brand or begun selling their own apparel.

Volleyball brand REN Athletics debuted its first product with a collegiate athlete—a black, oversized crewneck sweatshirt designed with the University of Nebraska’s Lexi Sun—right at midnight. The California-based brand described the piece as the first of a Lexi Sun x REN Athletics line.

Austin apparel company Last Stand Hats quickly followed by announcing on Twitter that it had brought University of Texas football players DeMarvion Overshown and Josh Thompson “into the #laststandfamily.” Thompson now has three shirts for sale on Last Stand’s website and Overshown one.

Last Stand Hats hinted on Twitter that it would add the University of Texas' Keondre Coburn
Last Stand Hats hinted on Twitter that it would add the University of Texas’ Keondre Coburn. @laststandhats

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Since Thursday, at least four University of South Carolina athletes have signed with PSD Underwear: basketball player Chico Carter and football players Dakereon Joyner, Jaheim Bell and Jason Brown. The intimates brand is also partnered with several professional NBA players, including the Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler and the Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young.

Some are not waiting to find a brand partner and have instead launched their own online stores. Right at midnight, Kendall Milton, a running back with the Georgia Bulldogs, began selling T-shirts under his new brand KM2. Available for $25, the two designs were created in partnership with the Nashville-based apparel company Seven Six.

Iowa Hawkeyes basketball player Jordan Bohannon also began selling tees in the early hours of the morning. Available on his J3O Shopify store, the two shirts are priced at $33.33.

Michael Keyes, an intellectual property attorney and partner at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney, said it is “impossible to overstate the importance” of the NCAA’s rule change.

“By some estimates, the sports merchandising market over the last few years hovered around $15 billion,” Keyes said. “It’s about to get a lot bigger very soon.”

The wave of student-athlete sponsorships comes less than two years after California became the first state to pass legislation prohibiting schools from punishing college athletes for accepting endorsement money. The law was originally slated to go into effect Jan. 1, 2023. At the time, the NCAA dubbed the legislation an “existential threat.”

Florida passed its own law the following June, selecting July 1, 2021 as the day it would go into effect, significantly cutting down the time the NCAA had to decide on a response. Since then, dozens of states have passed NIL laws, with many coalescing around the July 1 start date.

As state after state passed their own individual laws, the NCAA has urged Congress to enact some form of federal reform. Republicans and Democrats have both taken up the task, but the two sides have yet to come to an agreement.

In its announcement Wednesday, the NCAA said it would continue to work with Congress to adopt federal legislation to support student-athletes, describing its new policy to allow NIL opportunities as an “interim solution.” The organization said the policy would remain in place until federal legislation passes or new NCAA rules are adopted.

“This is just the opening move in what is certain to be a long and involved process for the NCAA, student athletes, and the institutions for whom they play,” Keyes said. “It may not be the wild, wild West, but it is going to be pretty wild.”

NCAA Division II Presidents Council chair Sandra Jordan stressed that the association’s new policy “preserves the fact [that] college sports are not pay-for-play.”

“It also reinforces key principles of fairness and integrity across the NCAA and maintains rules prohibiting improper recruiting inducements,” she added. “It’s important any new rules maintain these principles.”

Such inducements constituted a central component of the corruption scandal that rocked men’s college basketball in 2017 and 2018. Those arrested as a result of the FBI investigation included an Adidas executive and multiple Adidas-affiliated consultants and advisors.

The scandal led Brian Bowen II, a former University of Louisville basketball player, to sue Adidas, two former Adidas employees and four others for damages. Having been exposed as one of the players connected to the illicit payments uncovered by the FBI, he alleged he had suffered damages as a result of Adidas and the other defendants’ “acts of racketeering activity.”

According to the FBI’s investigation, Adidas employees, consultants and others conspired to pay Bowen’s father $100,000 to ensure his son, a high school basketball star, signed with the Louisville Cardinals. Bowen’s lawyer claims his client was unaware of the bribe.

A U.S. district judge dismissed Bowen’s lawsuit in late May.