Student Athletes and NIL: How We Got Here, and Where It's Going


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Aired April 6, 2023

Welch Suggs, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia and a former reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, joins the podcast to look at the state of the name, image, and likeness (NIL) landscape for student athletes and college campuses. Where do we stand since the NIL era began in 2021? Which students are benefiting from these contracts? How much money are they making? And with no central authority regulating NIL, will Congress step in?

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

Former President Donald Trump is on His Way to NY Ahead of His Arraignment
Fox 5 | April 3, 2023

Everything You Need to Know About the NCAA's NIL Debate
ESPN | Sept. 1, 2021

O'Bannon v. NCAA - 802 F.3d 1049 (9th Cir. 2015)

National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston

NIL Collectives Sprouting Up To Help Student-athletes with Monetization
Sports Business Journal | Feb. 16, 2022

The Endorsement Deals Shaping the N.C.A.A. Tournaments
The New York Times | April 2, 2023

New Endorsements for College Athletes Resurface an Old Concern: Sex Sells
The New York Times | Nov. 8, 2022

NCAA's Baker Continues To Push for Congressional NIL Solution
Sports Business Journal | April 3, 2023

Congressional Hearing Targets ‘NIL Chaos’ in College Sports
The Associated Press | March 29, 2023

Hosts and Guests

 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith: Hello and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education policy podcast from the American Council on Education. In a little bit, we're going to be joined by Welch Suggs, who is an associate professor at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. And he's going to come out and explain to us exactly what's happening with NIL's and college athletics. But before we do that, I am joined by my excellent, excellent co-hosts, both of them here with me today, Sarah Spreitzer and king of all media, Mushtaq Gunja. Hi guys, how are you doing?

Sarah Spreitzer: Good. But why is Mushtaq king of all media?

Mushtaq Gunja: Let's talk college sports, actually.

Jon Fansmith: I am so glad you asked Sarah. Let's ignore Mushtaq and talk about Mushtaq instead. Mushtaq, do you want to share with Sarah why I refer to you as king of all media? Because I will if you don't.

Sarah Spreitzer: Our fans want to know, Mushtaq.

Mushtaq Gunja: So I did a couple of local TV news hits over the last couple of days because of the Trump arraignment that is occurring as we record this in a couple of hours on Tuesday. By the time our listeners hear this, it will have happened, and it was incredibly non-eventful. These TV hits mostly, I said, as I do on this podcast, often I don't know anything. We don't know anything because the charges have not yet been filed. But I was on TV a little bit and my kids were dually unimpressed, sadly.

Sarah Spreitzer: Oh.

Mushtaq Gunja: They gave me a kiss on the cheek, but they weren't really all that interested to tell you the truth.

Jon Fansmith: I did like the way you very humbly ragged some TV hits, plural. You a little slid that in there, that multiple TV pops you had.

Mushtaq Gunja: Well, for a co-host on the ACE dotEDU podcast, I think these things are coming yours and Sarah's way soon, too.

Sarah Spreitzer: Well, and we're not even talking about his Jeopardy appearance of a few years ago.

Jon Fansmith: True.

Sarah Spreitzer: So hopefully we can put a link to his Fox 5 appearance in the show notes. But it's pretty quiet in DC this week, I think we're in congressional recess. Folks are getting ready for Passover and Easter, so everything seems to be centered around New York.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, I think that's right. And we'll sort of see what ends up happening with these charges. There's some reporting that we're going to see 30, 35 sort of counts and we'll see if those are individual sort of payments, individual sort of campaign finance violations all stemming from the same scheme or whether there's something more complicated going on. But it will be interesting to see, but you are no doubt right sir. For once the political intrigue that normally clogs up the DC Metro is instead moved up to New York MTA.

Sarah Spreitzer: I will note that I did see some protesters today out around DuPont Circle, but I don't think it was related to President Trump's arraignment. Yeah, not sure.

Jon Fansmith: I will tell you, there were no protestors on Capitol Hill this morning, or at least not as of 7:30 or so in the morning when I walk through. So we'll see.

Mushtaq Gunja: I'm glad that we're talking with Welch about college sports because I did spend a lot of the last few days watching March Madness and actually a lot of the women's tournament. I don't know, Jon, Sarah, if you spent much time, but on our personal Slack feed with some friends, shout out to David Ziff, loyal listener of the podcast. I think we spent more time talking about the women's Final Four than we did the men's Final Four, which is the first in our Slack feed, which was very cool. Great games. Were you guys able to watch?

Jon Fansmith: So I was able to watch.

Sarah Spreitzer: Oh, I was going to say I did notice that LSU won the women's tournament. I guess there was more news about that. I actually don't know who won the men's tournament. It's over, right?

Mushtaq Gunja: It's over.

Jon Fansmith: Last night.

Sarah Spreitzer: Oh, last night.

Jon Fansmith: Kind of a snooze of a game too actually. Especially after the Women's Final Four, which was I think pretty exciting and some really amazing individual performances too. Yeah, I tried to watch as much as I could. I did not see every game, but I certainly saw both the championship games and I saw one of the Final Four games on Friday and one of the Final Four games on Saturday. So it was good. It was a good tournament. Interesting. We'll talk a little bit about this with Welch too, but you're beginning to see maybe more teams emerging into the late rounds of the tournament than you used to see, and I think there's some shifting college landscape aspects that account for that. Makes it frankly a little bit more exciting, a little bit more interesting.

Mushtaq Gunja: Well, I'm looking forward to it and I think this is going to be a great conversation with Welch.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, I can't wait to learn what is NIL and why don't we say NLI.

Jon Fansmith: That will be the focus. And if you are just as curious as Sarah, hang with us for a minute. We'll be back after the break.


Jon Fansmith: And welcome back. As we mentioned at the top of the episode, we are joined by a very special guest today. Dr. Welch Suggs is an associate professor at the Grady College of Journalism in mass communication at the University of Georgia. And somebody very familiar to us, and I'm sure very familiar to many of you from his time working at The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as working on the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and with President Michael F. Adams at the University of Georgia. So Welch, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Welch Suggs: Oh, it's great to be back with you. I've always had great experiences with ACE so I'm looking forward to the conversation.

Jon Fansmith: Well, hopefully we won't ruin that tradition for you here today. I have my eye on Sarah, mostly concerned there. But one of the reasons we were really excited to have you on is because you are the person who's going to make clear to the rest of us something that I have lived in utter confusion with over the last two years. And frankly, if you can give us a clear answer, I'm going to be super impressed because the people we have talked to have said, here's this, here's that, but NILs, names, image and likeness.

This is something that if you follow college athletics even remotely, much like Sarah follows them only remotely, even you are aware of this.

Sarah Spreitzer: So closely.

Jon Fansmith: Right, exactly. And we're two years into this new environment of college athletics where athletes' abilities to market their names, image and likeness is now available. And it has been, I think in a lot of ways driving a lot of the discussion around college athletics and frankly driving a lot of what we see happening in college athletics, particularly around recruiting, but lots of other areas as well. Can you just talk to us a little bit about how we got here?

Welch Suggs: Sure, absolutely. So as a professor, I'm going to restrain myself from going all the way back to the beginning, although that's what I would love to do. But it's worth it just to explain that for generations, the NCAA has maintained this tradition of amateur athletics and the idea that athletes are not supposed to be profiting off any part of their athletic ability or accomplishments while in college. And that sort of sounds well and good in terms of keeping people focused on what they're supposed to be doing in the classroom as well as on the field.

But what's happened is that college athletics has grown into a multi-billion dollar business. And along with that, questions have been raised about why athletes are subject to restrictions that we wouldn't tolerate on any other student group. You can't imagine a cellist in the university orchestra being told that she can't make money off of her TikTok account or by giving private lessons or things like that. But athletes have never had access to those sorts of opportunities.

So the two key historical things -- and again, I'm trying not to lecture, but to summarize as quickly as I can -- in 2011 or in the early 2010s, the NCAA lost an important court case where the plaintiff was Ed O'Bannon, who was a famous basketball player from UCLA who had seen his name, image, and likeness used in the EA Sports basketball game. And so he sued for compensation claiming that had been taken from him. And the 9th Circuit eventually decided that more or less in his favor, and I don't want to get into this legal details, but that decision opened up the opportunity for some negotiation in the space.

Then California became the first state a few years later to create a new law, specifically saying that California institutions could not be a part of any association that restricted the ability of athletes to make money off of their name, image and likeness, and fearing that that would create a competitive advantage for Berkeley and Stanford and UCLA, et cetera. A whole parcel of other states rushed to pass their own laws, which went into effect as you alluded to in 2021. And the NCAA has essentially had to take a backseat because it could not afford to fight battles on a 50 state front. And so we have a situation where broadly speaking, all athletes in American colleges and universities are now allowed to seek deals for their name, image, and likeness with the sponsors they want, subject to some rules and regulations that tend to vary by state.

So it's a chaotic and fluid environment that no one is in charge of. There's no central authority deciding which deals are okay and which aren't, which is kind of typical of businesses everywhere. And so it's really fair to say that this is as much of a free for all as what you would find for influencers in any market, any of the people you see grinning out from your phone and trying to sell you products. And now it's just athletes are part of that new world order that we have with internet marketing.

Sarah Spreitzer: So Welch, I know very little about this topic, but the fact that there's some laws in some states. Are other states moving forward with doing laws, is there a federal aspect of this? Do you think there is going to be some future authority that's going to try to organize all these different rules?

Welch Suggs: So the NCAA would very much like there to be some federal role or some intervention perhaps in the form of an antitrust exemption that would allow them to control this marketplace. The NCAA has wanted to assert authority and has tried to enforce some of its rules, especially around how NIL gets into recruiting, which I assume we will get to in a little bit. But I would say broadly speaking, that the state laws that are out there allow athletes to pursue deals in any state with some minor variations. And unfortunately, I can't quote you chapter and verse on how different state regulations vary from one another except some states are moving forward with things like allowing high school athletes to pursue NIL deals and others have not done so right now.

So that part is very fraught. But the impression I get is that from state to state, it's not like athletes in Louisiana have a marked advantage over athletes in Georgia, for example, or that there are other massive disparities in the regulations as they are situated right now.

Sarah Spreitzer: So then how does NIL work for a college athlete right now in the space that we're in?

Welch Suggs: Well, there's two basic flavors of NIL and one's pretty easy to explain, and the other is a bit dicier. But the easy one is what the law was written to cover, which is the idea that athletes have some value in the marketplace, that they should be allowed to endorse products or to give private lessons or clinics or to sign autographs or do other things like that.

So one of my students actually literally popped into my office an hour ago, and she is a student athlete, she's in her fourth year right now and was telling me about some of the deals that she has, and those include details with Georgia Milk. She's been part of an ad campaign for them. In the past, she's worked with Chipotle, the burrito company, and she also signed a really interesting deal with Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment, the WWE, which is recruiting college athletes and something that I find absolutely fascinating. So all of that is, again, not really that different from what a normal student would be able to deal, except that this student athlete in particular does have a following because she's good and because she has a decent sized social media presence and there are a whole bunch of little girl softball players who really want to be like her when she grows up.

So she has value that she can go and negotiate deals in the marketplace. And her mom kind of functions as her agent, she called her, her momager, ala the Kardashians.

So that part I think is pretty straightforward. So we can think about that just like we think of pro-athletes doing deals with Coke or with Disney World or whatever it might be.

The other thing in which is much more controversial is the question about whether particular schools, particular teams are able to offer or promise NIL deals to recruits as recruiting inducement. And this again, has been part of college sports since the beginning of time, but the NCAA has never successfully been able to regulate it. And one of my favorite stories is back in the 19 teens when a football player at Yale got the campus cigarette concession to induce him to come to school there. And oh, I can go through this for all the Ivys and everybody else, nobody has completely clean hands in this kind of thing. But now with NIL, it's a whole lot more difficult to regulate that market or say that, okay, if someone decides to give 10 million to the University of Tennessee to recruit a quarterback, who's to say that the quarterback isn't worth that? It's just that guy, that person is kind of the market for NIL and maybe you require the athlete to do some token media deals or de minimis marketing things on behalf of the booster, or if the booster's working through what we can call it collective, then something along those lines.

And that is what has people freaked out because of course, that's not what NIL was intended to do. It wasn't intended to be an inducement in the same way, but there are no controls over this marketplace. And so that is what has prompted an awful lot of hand ringing about what goes on in this space, how can we regulate it, how can we fix that particular problem?

Sarah Spreitzer: Thank you. That's a great explanation. But one last question from me. Occasionally I get the question about how does this actually impact international students who are athletes, because I work on immigration provisions and policy impacting our international students, are they able to take advantage of NIL?

Welch Suggs: So the short answer is no, and I guess I would defer to your knowledge, but my understanding is that if you were an international student on a student visa, your ability to be employed is really closely restricted. Is that right?

Sarah Spreitzer: Yes. Yes, it is. If you are on a student visa, yes.

Welch Suggs: Yeah. So that basically has been held to prevent international athletes from marketing with American companies through NIL deals. Now two pieces to that. One is that if the athlete is a dual citizen, if they hold a U.S. passport, then they are able to do NIL deals. And I think that's a little more common than one might suspect otherwise. But then the other piece, I was actually talking with another one of my students who is herself an international student athlete, and she said that the athletic program had said that athletes were free to do deals in their home countries or things off of U.S. soil, and obviously the State Department don't think has an interest in any of that. So that's sort of an interesting wrinkle there.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah.

Mushtaq Gunja: Welch, when this NIL sort of business first came into our consciousness, starting with the O'Bannon case, but then really coming into existence a couple years ago, I think we heard a lot from sort of the chattering classes, this might destroy college sports, that things would never be the same. And to be honest, as much as I follow college sports, I'm not totally sure that I have understood the impact of NIL on sort of the college landscape. So Welch, who's getting these deals? Do we have a sense that it's mostly men, mostly in basketball and football? Is it more evenly distributed? What does it look like on campus right now?

Welch Suggs: So Mushtaq, I think the most important thing to remember is that whenever you see a dollar figure or a size or even a scale associated with NIL, take it with a grain of salt. We have no idea at the end of the day really what's out there, what numbers can be relied on and what anyone's actually making. Just for the same reason that we don't know a lot about what a lot of private companies and organizations are doing. I work for a state university, so you can look up my salary. You all work for nonprofits, they're under their own rules in terms of disclosures.

But in the private business world, you usually don't have access to those kinds of contracts. And so there's a lot of people that have been assigning value to athletes and to deals, but there's just no way at the end of the day of knowing what the actual amount of dollars changing hands is. So having said that, I mentioned the second form of NIL, the recruiting inducements, I heard had a sports writer friend called Bagman, NIL, because that's how we always used to think of boosters carrying around bags of money to hand out to athletes.

I think it's reasonable to assume that most of that is going to football and basketball players, male basketball players. I think it's also reasonable to assume that athletes who have a very high profile are more likely to get remunerative NIL deals. So an example of that would be Brock Bowers, who's a wide receiver on the football team here in Georgia, and I should say he's not one of my students, but I see him on billboards all over the state, advertising different things. So those kinds of things. And on radio broadcast, the same kind of deal.

So he's functioning just like any other pitchman or pitch woman might be for any other kind of endorsement campaign. The interesting thing is that there are a lot of creative ways that other athletes in lower profile sports that female athletes are getting into this business. If you watched the Final Four, you saw Angel Reese from LSU who has both played fantastic and then handled herself with just incredible grace and presence in the press conference. And she has a deal with Coach. She has something like 17 different NIL deals that have been identified. So she's got a lot of stuff going on.

The New York Times got very angsty about Olivia Dunn, the gymnast from LSU in an article that came out back in the fall, very concerned that because she was an attractive young woman, that she was getting details that were not necessarily available to people who were not as conventionally attractive as she was. And the article framed that as a problem. But I think at the end of the day, what we see happening is that athletes who have large social media followings for whatever reason, are able to capitalize those and build NIL portfolios that can be remunerative.

So is this a problem? I'm not sure who it's a problem for because the other interesting aspect, especially as regards to female athletes, is that women who are at the top of their game in basketball, soccer, and other sports are making a lot more money now through NIL than they would be able to make as pros. So next season we'll have the opportunity to see Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark from Iowa and Paige Bueckers from UConn duke it out, and really be able to capitalize on this great surge of interest in women's basketball. And they're around because they see that making money off of the NIL is going to be a whole lot better than the rookie pay scale for the WNBA.

Mushtaq Gunja: So understanding as you said, that we don't know everything and in fact we may not know most things, do we have any sense of the scale here of how much Angel Reese is making an NIL deals, how much some of the most popular men's football players are making?

Welch Suggs: We don't. There are lots of rumors of athletes signing seven figure deals and things like that in these sports, especially as regards to Bagman NIL. There was a good article by a friend of mine in Runners World recently about college track and cross-country athletes making money. And an agent asserts that a kind of mid to high level distance runner at Duke was making over $150,000 a year in NIL deals. So with that as a range, it's important to realize that also beyond only what 330 or 360 schools or so are in Division 1 and Division 2 schools, Division 3 schools, there are athletes signing deals. They're just basically for pizza money and stuff like that. And who's to begrudge of a Division 3 golfer for making some pizza money?

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah. I think it's important for us to sort of recognize what the scope of the possible NIL landscape is, right from a couple hundred dollars all the way up to potentially seven figures, but those $2,000, $3,000 for some of these athletes is not nothing, and it's $2,000 or $3,000 more than what they were potentially getting before. One last question for me before we maybe talk about the policy landscape here and the weirdness of not having a centralized place to regulate all this.

Welch, what's been the impact that you can see from your studies of these NIL deals on the college sort of competitive landscape? I think this is one of the things that folks were quite worried about that maybe the rich would get much richer and everybody else would gets sort of left behind. Hard to know whether we're going to be able to see those effects right away. Though I did notice that the men's Final Four and the women's Final Four on the college basketball scene had a couple of newcomers, so it wasn't all the blue bloods. What's your sense of how it's playing out on campus?

Welch Suggs: Well, I think there is an awful lot of angst about it. If you're going to talk about the competitive landscape, you also have to remember that the NCAA loosened up rules on athletes transferring from one school to another. So that has been part of the NIL conversation and concerns about boosters having induced athletes to transfer from one institution to another. There have been some cases where some athletes have apparently done that or there has been some movement on behalf of NIL deals. Miami has been in the headlines recently, although for odd reasons, I'll get back to you here in a second, but I think it has caused a lot more worry than it's caused actual changes in the makeups of things.

With men's basketball, you have to remember that the one-and-done era is also in a period of turbulence where that's really kind of disrupted the college landscape and you don't have Kentucky able to basically stockpile first round NBA draft picks to win titles every year. But it is becoming much more spread out and there seems to be more of a premium on players who stick around for 2, 3, 4, even 5 years if you look at this year's tournament. I think that it is really hard to quantify the impact the NIL has had. It certainly has put more pressure on universities to come up with deals and define ways of attracting athletes.

So from that standpoint, I would say that probably in the long term it will reinforce the power structure as it is because the schools in the Power Five that are able to pay the most for coaches as well as for athletes, potentially collectives, the ones who can get their act together and spend the money in the right ways to attract those athletes, will continue doing so. But it's interesting, I talk to a lot of people in athletics who are really uncomfortable about this because they say if I had wanted to work in pro sports, I would've gone to pro sports. I wanted to be in a university environment. I wanted to be part of watching athletes grow and mature and prosper and leave here better than they came.

And I think that's great, but also if your salary is being paid by what those athletes do on the court or on the field, I think it's a bit disingenuous to say that everyone's allowed to be professional except for those kids. And I use the term kids advisedly. So I don't think we're seeing any long-term competitive changes... or sorry, I don't think we're seeing competitive changes right now. Whether those really take root in the long term is something we're going to have to see. It's probably going to vary sport by sport.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. Well, I think this is so fascinating too, in part because I think a lot of the concerns we've heard are those ones that to Mushtaq's point, the rich will get richer. It's a huge advantage for certain institutions. So for others, it fundamentally reshapes the character and composition of collegiate athletics. And what I've heard from you at least so far is we haven't seen that so far. In some ways it reinforces what was already in place where institutions with an emphasis on athletic programs, high profile athletic programs continue to be doing that.

That said clearly, and we've seen this publicly, the NCAA is concerned about this. They're concerned about what they see as a wild west kind of landscape where different states can set different rules, where there's no consistency across conferences or across institutions or across states. And really in a way that I think, at least in my experience, it's been pretty new for the NCAA, they've been looking to the federal government for some assistance. And curious, I'm not hearing these problems as you recount what the landscape looks like. How much of this do you think is really driven by concerns down the road, an objective look at what's over the horizon, how much of it is that the NCAAs traditionally had a very tight reign over college athletics and how that's managed and some of these points you made about colleagues who work in sports.

Well, I came for college athletics, I didn't want to join the pros. I'm just really curious to hear your insights on where you think this push is coming from, what's motivating it and how much merit that is to the idea that we need a federal solution to this problem. And I'm putting quotes around all of that last part.

Welch Suggs: Well, first Jon, I have to say I am so disappointed. I thought we were going to get through an entire conversation about NIL without using the phrase the Wild West, and you just collapsed because that's what comes up every single time this is talked about. But the reality, I think, is that the NCAA blew it a long time ago, and the leadership of higher education blew it in terms of trying to confine college sports to an educational opportunity. And there are all sorts of things you could point to in the past where they could have taken a stronger stand and didn't.

But the reality is that over especially the last 20 years, arguably over the last 50 since the Board of Regents case versus NCAA in 1984, what we've seen is money pouring into college sports and to pour into the Power 5 schools in particular at levels that just could not have even been contemplated in the earlier days of college sports. And we have something like half a dozen schools will make more than $200 million just from athletics this coming year. We probably have another several dozen that will make over $100 million a year.

They're paying their coaches seven and eight figures to coach and even not to coach after they fire them and they abide by severance contracts. And what I think has happened is that the public has lost patience with the notion that we have to ensure that athletes are kept in this little box and prevented from doing even the things that other students do versus what pro-athletes get to do in their time. And that is why you're starting to see judges be really sarcastic, frankly, in opinions about the NCAA and their questionings of what the NCAA's motives are. And the NCAA had a chance to adapt its rules and to take a look at what amateurism really meant in this commercial landscape. But instead, they doubled down with trying to assert that they had the right to decide absolutely under what terms athletes could and couldn't be compensated and what commercial rights athletes could and couldn't assert.

And by doubling down on that and losing time after time, whether it was in the O'Bannon case or in the Olson Case, and it looks like in a couple of other cases that are pending now or moving through the system, they've really lost that opportunity to handle this business for themselves. And so they are looking to other authorities for something. And at the same time, the NCAA has always been a punching bag for state legislators or anytime they want to blame someone else for challenges that their own institutions face. So they lost through all the NIL conversation at the state legislative level.

So now they appear to be putting all of their money on creating some sort of federal law that would standardize either NIL or the NCAA's ability to regulate it or both. And that is what's being bandied about. I don't know of the text of any particular bills or where they've gotten with that, but given the challenges of Congress doing anything, it's really hard to see how this is going to make it high enough on the agenda to actually get a bill that passes both houses and goes to the president.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, and I would say, as we talk about often this Congress is not especially effective at passing legislation, right, so in this area or in any other area, that's unlikely. I think another thing that you touched on is receptivity to the NCAA and Congress is not super high right now. I think there was just a hearing, love this title from the Buzzer Beater to the Bank: Protecting Student Athletes' Rights... I think Protecting Student Athletes Rights to Access NILs or to NILs, which I think even if you don't watch the hearing... I don't know, did you watch the hearing, Welch?

Welch Suggs: I couldn't bear to, honestly. And the reviews I saw were not great.

Jon Fansmith: Well, imagine how Sarah and I feel, this is our full-time job. But, the title at least gives you a flavor of exactly what the approach was in the hearing. And frankly, if you are the NCAA and you're looking for help, you don't seem to have a very receptive ear in Congress right now. So we know what the NCAA wants, what do the schools want? Do schools look at this and say, this is an environment we can thrive in? Is this an environment where we would like more certainty? Is this something that says maybe we need to fundamentally rethink how we engage in athletics and where we put the opportunities? I'm just curious, you talk to different schools all the time. Well, where are the schools landing?

Welch Suggs: Well, I think they're all over the place, both internally and externally. College presidents ultimately, the vast majority of them, don't know that much about college sports. And I mean that kindly because it's an incredibly complex and nuanced enterprise. Athletic directors and coaches have a vested interest in something that looks like the status quo, both so that they can maintain control over athletes as well as not competing with them for their own salaries and revenue streams and other priorities there.

The general student body and the faculty are, I think, at most places, and certainly I would say here, like athletes, they like obviously what's come with winning two national football titles, and they're not that concerned with how athletes are treated day-to-day, and they think it's perfectly fine if they get to go out and make deals and make money and appear on their social media feeds and things like that.

With around college athletics also, there is this powerful need to validate institutions through athletics. Roy Kramer, who's the former commissioner of the Southeastern Conference,oy once told me that athletics was a form of accreditation for schools. And that in terms of sort of maintaining the value of saying that because you were in Division 1, you were competing with the Harvard's and the Michigan's and the North Carolina's of the world for excellence in students and everything like that.

And I think that power of trying to be literally in the same league as major universities, I see it with schools struggling to get into the AAU by the same token, that there is this tremendous need to show that you are big time in sports, therefore you must be big time in everything else. And so right now it's still hard to see very many schools just deciding, okay, we're done, we're out of this business. I know St. Francis in New York just did recently, or announced that they were going to do.

But down here in the state next to mine, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which is primarily a medical institution, tried to get rid of FBS level football a few years ago because it just wasn't a fit with the institutional mission. And it caused such an uproar among its alumni and among its stakeholders that the president was forced to backtrack and bring back the program at great expense. And so at this point, it's not exaggeration to say that many universities will continue throwing good money after bad to maintain their profile in college athletics unless it becomes truly untenable. Like if a court were to declare athletes to be employees and say, okay, you got to go out and pay your football team and your basketball team X amount, and that will cause I think a lot of schools to deescalate because they simply won't be able to afford to even pretend to be competing at the same level.

Sarah Spreitzer: So Welch, you talked about how the NCAA feels, how the institutions feel. How do the students feel about NIL right now and what are you hearing from your students at UGA?

Welch Suggs: Well, students as a whole, I think actually see it as a career opportunity. I teach a sports media program. A lot of our students want to go on in social and digital production, and so they see job opportunities here. Among the athletes that I teach, a lot of them have had generally good experiences. I had a football player back in the fall who started a podcast with one of his teammates, it had sponsors. It was very well received. It's not quite my cup of tea, but other people seem to love it.

I mentioned the athlete before who had a deal with Allstate... Sorry, not Allstate. HR Block appears to be doing a lot of smaller deals with athletes through NIL. But I do know that it's a strain. I had another student tell me that she really felt like she couldn't... if you had school, NIL, and your sport, you could not do all three at an effective level. And so she had kind of backburnered her NIL activities to try to finish out the season in her academic career.

But like I said before, there are others, including the one I mentioned with the WWE deal, she had elected to stay at UGA for her fifth year, her last year of eligibility because she was doing so well with NIL stuff. And she thought that would give her a stronger background to go out into the working world in whatever profession she chooses. So I think it's largely been pretty benign that I see. I have not heard any of the terrible deals or people getting done in by bagman or anything like that.

Jon Fansmith: Welch, I want to stop here and thank you for taking the time. As I think my colleagues, they're both nodding as I say this, we could keep talking for a while, right? I'll also say that I started off by saying, if you can make this clear to us, I will be very impressed. Count me impressed. This was, I think, a really revelatory conversation. I think particularly the perspective you brought to is something that frankly, often is missing from some of the discussions around here, especially without some of the hyperbole and the scare of the Wild West terminology that you referred to. So thank you again for taking the time to join us. Really glad we could have you on.

Welch Suggs: It's my pleasure. Thanks so much for your time today.

Sarah Spreitzer: As always, you can check out earlier episodes and subscribe to dotEDU on Apple, Google Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to your podcast. For show notes and links to the resources mentioned in the episode, you can go to our website at Well, there please take a short survey to let us know how we're doing. You can also email us at to give us suggestions on upcoming shows and guests.

And finally, a very big thank you to the producers who helped pull this podcast together. Laurie Arnston, Audrey Hamilton, Malcolm Moore, Anthony Trueheart, Rebecca Morris, Jack Nicholson, and Fatma NGom, they do an incredible job making this happen and making Jon, Mushtaq and I sound as good as possible. Finally, thank you so much to all of you for listening.

About the Podcast

​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major public policy issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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