BLOOMINGTON – Late last month, flanked by Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith, Ohio state Senator Niraj Antani announced the introduction of a state-level bill meant to legalize the ability for college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL).
“As a graduate of the Ohio State University,” Antani said, standing at an Ohio State-branded lectern, “I saw how hard student-athletes worked both on their academics and their sport of choice. Since that time at Ohio State, I strongly believe students have an inherent right of their name, image and likeness.”
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The visual was striking, its message crystal clear: The biggest state institution in Ohio, and almost certainly the most politically powerful of the Big Ten’s 14 schools, was throwing its weight behind the push for NIL legislation in its state.
Antani’s announcement moved Ohio into a group of 40 states somewhere between considering and having passed NIL legislation. Ohio was also the ninth of 11 states in the Big Ten footprint to join that list.
The only remaining outsiders? Wisconsin is one.
The other is Indiana, where schools are gearing up for the arrival of NIL into college athletics while there appears to be no serious appetite for state-level legislation governing it.
In the past two weeks, IndyStar sought comment on the question from governmental leaders on both sides of the aisle at the state executive and legislative levels, as well as at the federal level, where work toward a national law governing NIL has advanced with bipartisan support.
Precious little was forthcoming.
A spokesman for the governor’s office characterized IndyStar’s inquiry as “a question for the legislature,” saying simply, “The governor will carefully review any legislation that comes across his desk and make his decision at that point.”
Within that legislature, there appears virtually no energy toward such legislation.
An email to the office of Todd Huston, a Republican from Fishers and Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, received no response. Rod Bray, a Republican from Martinsville and the state senate’s most prominent member as President Pro Tempore, declined comment through a spokesperson.
Beyond state leadership, there was only slightly more eagerness to address the topic.
In all, of a half-dozen state legislators — Republican and Democrat — contacted for this story because their districts encompassed all or significant parts of the footprints of the state’s three Football Bowl Subdivision institutions, only one responded to IndyStar’s request for comment.
“It seems like a lot of this stuff could’ve been solved by NCAA regulation a long time ago,” said Ryan Dvorak, a Democrat from South Bend. “By their inaction, they’ve let the problem become bigger and bigger.”
The issue is no longer fully in the association’s hands.
The NCAA Division I Council was once expected to vote on potential rules changes regarding NIL in January, moving any such reform to its final step in the association’s rules-making process. That vote was delayed indefinitely, after the Justice Department reportedly voiced potential anti-trust concerns. The council is expected to take the vote up again at a meeting later this summer.
However, state or federal laws would almost certainly supersede any NCAA regulation on the matter.
“I think it’s probably something you’d see a lot of people sort of reluctant to jump into,” Dvorak said. “A solution the government would come up with would have its own types of problems, and we know that.”
A federal law would offer perhaps the cleanest solution, and remains a possibility. Various bills — some with bipartisan support — have been introduced in both the Senate and the House of Representatives that would create some framework for college athletes to receive compensation.
A member of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Todd Young, said in a subcommittee hearing in February 2020 that he was concerned with a potential “patchwork of state laws that may present a challenge to the NCAA,” and that his aim is to find an equitable middle ground between athlete compensation and retaining something resembling the current collegiate model.
“This is a really important issue that comes down to a question of fairness and equity, and we need to tackle it intelligently,” the Republican senator from Indiana said that day, speaking before a panel that included NCAA President Mark Emmert, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and National College Players Association Executive Director Ramogi Huma. “We’re trying to strike a balance here. We want to maintain the fundamental notion of college sports if at all possible, while addressing this issue of name, likeness and image that a number of states have already gone out and addressed in a number of different ways.”
Young underscored in his comments that the state is “grateful to have the NCAA in Indianapolis,” where the association has been headquartered for two decades.
When IndyStar contacted his office for this story, a spokesperson for Sen. Young referred to Young’s comments in that hearing, and offered a statement reaffirming much of what he said then.
“As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee with jurisdiction over the issue of intercollegiate athlete compensation, Sen. Young continues to work with his colleagues to develop a potential legislative response to ensure there is not a patchwork of differing state legislation on the issue,” the spokesperson said.
Two similar requests for comment from Sen. Mike Braun went unreturned.
Until a national law trumps them, however, state laws will be the most powerful change agents in name, image and likeness discussions.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed the country’s 18th state-level NIL law earlier this month. Of those 18, five take effect July 1.
Four of those five are states inside the SEC footprint, a nod to the particular traction these laws have gotten in states where college football is hyperpopular. In all, 10 of the SEC’s 14 schools are in states with NIL laws already signed, though some don’t take effect this year. Others, like Texas A&M, could fall under the blanket of a state NIL law in the not-so-distant future.
Big Ten country has been slower to react. Only four Big Ten states — Michigan, Maryland, Nebraska and New Jersey — have NIL laws on the books. Nebraska’s law is effectively on the books, though it has not yet been exercised. Michigan’s doesn’t go into effect until 2022, the others until at least 2023.
But every other state in the conference footprint save Indiana and Wisconsin has at least taken steps toward passing NIL legislation.
In some Big Ten states, any such law is still in the early stages. In others, such as Illinois, it is as close as the governor’s signature.
And many of the conference’s schools have rushed to embrace the potential NIL can offer athletes. Nebraska has been at the vanguard of potential reforms, as has IU, both schools setting up an extensive framework within which athletes could potentially maximize brand power during their college careers. Purdue also recently announced a program called EMPOWER, touted in a statement by Boilermakers AD Mike Bobinski as “a comprehensive approach to student-athlete development through education, entrusting them with resources, and entrepreneurship opportunities.”
Elsewhere in the state, Notre Dame is preparing as well, with Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick publicly supportive of name, image and likeness reforms on the basis that athletes should be treated like any other student at the university.
Broadly, there are concerns around NIL turning into a recruiting weapon in big-dollar sports, increasing the already noticeable gap between the richest athletic departments and their less-moneyed counterparts, in addition to raising wider Title IX issues and more. But the consensus is it’s coming, and those best prepared for it are likely to benefit most. Or at very least, earliest.
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There still exists the possibility the NCAA can solve at least some of these problems soon, preempting further legislation. The association is expected to take up that vote again soon.
Congress could yet take it out of the NCAA’s hands, however.
Wednesday, for the first time since Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington, became chairwoman, the Senate Commerce Committee held new hearings on the possibility of a national law governing name, image and likeness (and perhaps more).
Lawmakers floated a variety of possibilities regarding such legislation, from solutions narrowly tailored to NIL, to wider reforms imposed upon the NCAA regarding long-term student-athlete health and welfare.
But on both sides of the aisle, there appears to be an appetite for solving this problem at the national level, something the NCAA would appear to welcome.
So, too, would the Power Five conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 — who released a statement after Wednesday’s hearings expressing concern about “patchwork” state laws they fear could disadvantage schools in states without NIL legislation, or with legislation more restrictive than in other parts of the country.
“Only Congress can pass a national solution for student-athlete NIL rights,” the statement, released by all five conferences in concert, read. “The patchwork of state laws that begins on July 1 will disadvantage student-athletes in some states and create an unworkable system for others. As leaders in college athletics, we support extending NIL rights in a way that supports the educational opportunities of all student-athletes, including collegians in Olympic sports who comprised 80% of Team USA at the Rio games. We continue to work with Congress to develop a solution for NIL and expand opportunities.”
That might be the only widely accepted way this happens. As it stands, it appears to be the only way Indiana will come under the blanket of NIL legislation. There exists no tangible energy toward it within state government.
“I think the ball is in the colleges’ court at this time,” Dvorak said, “They need to come together and find a solution for themselves, because if they don’t, one is going to be imposed on them. I don’t know where that will come from, but nobody will be happy with that either.
“If it gets bad enough, it’s something we’ll have to do, and no one’s going to be happy about that.”
Collective ambivalence, to be fair, does not place Indiana in uncomfortable company.
Any reforms the NCAA passes appear likely to be stricter than many state laws on the books, presenting potential legal issues, and a federal solution remains wedged in the legislative process for now.
Even the conferences that took it upon themselves to release that joint statement Wednesday, who unironically referred to themselves as “the Autonomous Five,” eagerly encouraged Congress to find a blanket solution to their problem.
Everyone, it seems, would prefer someone else solve this not-at-all-new problem.
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.