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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Wisconsin’s place in the NIL revolution

It’s been almost two years since the NCAA and Supreme Court allowed collegiate athletes to earn money from their name, image and likeness. How have Wisconsin athletes and the administration responded?

Ed O’Bannon beamed with joy atop the ladder, firmly grasping the rim with his right hand and a piece of the net in the other. Minutes earlier, his UCLA Bruins defeated the Arkansas Razorbacks, 89-78, in the 1995 NCAA National Championship game. For O’Bannon, it was a fairytale ending to his senior year. 

Surprisingly enough, O’Bannon’s most significant collegiate victory wouldn’t come for another 19 years, and it wouldn’t come on the court, but in the courtroom.

O’Bannon first challenged the NCAA in the court of law in 2009, suing the organization’s Electronic Arts and Collegiate Licensing Company over using his name, image and likeness (NIL) in a college basketball video game. For years, the NCAA had gotten away with using student-athletes’ image without compensation, routinely falling back on their model of “amateurism.” Players weren’t considered professionals, so they weren’t eligible to earn a paycheck. 

That all changed in 2014 when District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the NCAA's ever changing definition of amateurism violated antitrust laws. EA Sports was subsequently forced to discontinue its line of NCAA video games and pay $60 million to 24,819 athletes. 

The monumental ruling suddenly threatened the NCAA’s hard stance against allowing its athletes to benefit from their NIL. The matter eventually reached the Supreme Court seven years later in the 2021 case National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston.  

On the issue of restrictions placed upon academic-related benefits, the Court unanimously ruled in favor of Shawne Alston, who formerly played running back at West Virginia University. In Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion, he stated the “NCAA's business model of using unpaid student-athletes to generate billions of dollars in revenue for the colleges raises serious questions under the antitrust laws.” 

It wasn’t long before the NCAA lifted their regulations on athletic-related benefits as well. On June 30, 2021, the goliath organization announced college athletes would be eligible to profit off their NIL. 

“This is an important day for college athletes since they all are now able to take advantage of name, image and likeness opportunities,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a press release. “With the variety of state laws adopted across the country, we will continue to work with Congress to develop a solution that will provide clarity on a national level.” 

Wisconsin student-athletes were quick to act following the watershed revision, swiftly capitalizing on the custom merchandise, autograph signings and endorsement deals that now awaited them.

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Then-Badger quarterback Graham Mertz revealed his trademark logo on July 1, becoming the first collegiate athlete to possess one. Many of his teammates quickly followed suit, as Wisconsin’s entire offensive line partnered with Mission BBQ — the same food chain that sponsored Wisconsin legend Joe Thomas.

UW’s Matt Henningsen (football), Dana Rettke (volleyball) and Chayla Edwards (women’s hockey) also seized the opportunity to promote themselves, joining Degree Deodorant as part of their Breaking Limits team. 

Over time, Badgers’ NIL deals increased in size and creativity. 

Collin Wilder and Chucky Hepburn immortalized moments of greatness through apparel. Once Wilder’s “Grit Factory” trucker hat became the rallying symbol of the defense — players routinely donned the hat on the sideline after forcing a turnover — the safety partnered with two companies to place the slogan on caps and shirts. And after Hepburn buried an iconic 3-pointer against No. 8 Purdue to share the Big Ten Conference regular-season title, the point guard printed the shot on shirts with the title “The Chucky Special.”    

Other athletes didn’t stray far from home when partnering with companies. La Crosse natives and basketball stars Johnny and Jordan Davis signed with the Wisconsin-based clothing company Jockey, serving as the poster children of homegrown talent for the company’s “Made In America campaign.” Running back Braelon Allen, born and raised in Fond du Lac, joined Iron Joc Performance Gear & Apparel, where he, too, represented a clothing company based in his home state.

As Wisconsin athletes’ NIL portfolios continued to grow, the university stepped in to provide even more opportunities. 

On April 21, 2022, the athletic department launched YouDub, an online NIL marketplace solely intended for Badger athletes. Through YouDub, businesses are given a direct line of access to students’ bios, social media profiles, interests and preferences. If a company believes the athlete is a good match for their brand image, they can pitch them on possible NIL partnerships. Contracts, bookings and payments can all be securely done through the platform, which is powered by Opendorse.

YouDub additionally provides fans with personal access to their favorite Badger stars. Video shoutouts, autographs and public appearances are all able to be purchased for a price determined by each athlete.  

“This is an exciting step in our evolving efforts to provide the highest level of support to our student-athletes when it comes to their NIL opportunities,” UW Athletic Director Chris McIntosh said after YouDub’s release. “We are fortunate to have a large and passionate fan base that not only supports the efforts of our program and our teams collectively, but specifically takes pride in supporting our student-athletes individually as Badgers.” 

Wisconsin student-athletes received NIL assistance from sources outside the athletic department as well. UW Athletics donors launched the Varsity Collective on June 4 with the intent of becoming the “premier destination for Wisconsin student-athletes to identify business opportunities.” Through the collective, Wisconsin alumni and businesses can put money towards NIL deals for UW athletes, as well as mentor students through the ever-changing NIL world.

While the future of NIL deals poses many benefits, it also poses several risks. 

NIL has become a bargaining chip utilized by collegiate programs to lure highly-touted athletes from high school and the transfer portal. With the help of collectives, universities have been able to promise recruits and prospects deals worth thousands of dollars before they ever don the school’s colors.

“NIL has been used as a recruiting inducement,” Wisconsin men’s basketball coach Greg Gard said last year. “It’s NIL promise versus NIL promise. It’s become pay for play in some regards, where the amounts have gotten astronomical, and it’s happened instantaneously.”

Though the NCAA formally bans the use of NIL deals for improper recruiting purposes, little has been done to deter programs from doing so. University of Miami women’s basketball coach Katie Meier was caught facilitating illegal contact between Haley and Hanna Cavinder — two prospective Fresno State transfers — and John Ruiz, a Hurricanes booster, last month. Despite the clear breach of rules, the program was only issued a minor $5,000 fine and one-year probation.  

It remains to be seen what role NIL will play for Wisconsin Athletics. During an age in which star athletes, transfer-portal acquisitions and triple figure deals reign supreme, the Badgers will be faced with a tough decision — to stick with the old ways or embrace the new age.

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