Thousands of college athletes across the country this week will gain ownership of something that the NCAA has long withheld: their own names.
Pressured by a slew of state laws set to go into effect Thursday, the NCAA’s Board of Directors is expected to vote Wednesday to allow college athletes to finally profit from their names, images and likenesses – the result of decades of athlete activism and unprecedented pressure on the college sports behemoth.
The lifting of NIL restrictions, as they are called, is likely to transform the college sports landscape, allowing individual athletes to earn money by signing endorsement deals, appearing in commercials, hosting their own camps and clinics and in other ways – all things that the NCAA has long forbidden.
The college sports organization’s restrictions went further than many in the public understood, threatening the eligibility of athletes who promoted small businesses, fundraised money for health care and accepted offers of free cosmetics on social media.
The organization fought for years in court to prevent its athletes from being able to earn money. But the NCAA’s Division I Council recommended Monday that the restrictions be lifted, ensuring that all NCAA athletes nationwide, not just those in states with pending laws, can profit from their names and likenesses once the policy is approved. Under the recommendations, schools will be free to set their own limits in states without laws on the books.
Advocates painted the decision as a victory for both racial and gender equity. They have long pointed to an NCAA system that allows colleges, coaches and administrators to profit off the images of Black athletes in major revenue sports such as football and basketball – while fighting to limit the ways that athletes could earn even small amounts of money.
With much of college sports media focused on football and men’s basketball, NIL rights are also expected to hand major earning power to female athletes, who sometimes have huge followings on social media that outstrip the attention they are given by traditional outlets.
NIL rules limited female athletes in major sports such as softball, volleyball and even basketball at the peak of their earning power – unlike in men’s sports, where college can more often mark the beginning, not the end, of a lucrative playing career for top-performing athletes.
Despite long-standing criticism, the NCAA fought lifting NIL restrictions for years, prompting states to step in. After California passed its own law in 2019, it set off an arms race, with dozens of states scrambling to put their own laws in place. Eight states have NIL laws set to go into effect Thursday, with more slated for later in the summer.
In interviews with The Washington Post, five college athletes discussed their plans to take advantage of this new frontier.
The Cavinder twins, women’s basketball, Fresno State
Haley and Hanna Cavinder remember the TikTok that changed everything. Because they’re twins, they say it at almost the exact same time: “Chicken Wing!”
They shot the video out on their suburban street, dressed in Nike sweatpants and sports bras as they dribbled their basketballs in sync with a beat called “Chicken Wing.” Stuck at home in quarantine, they had done similar short clips, a mix of dancing and dribbling, but the “Chicken Wing” video exploded online – racking up more than 27 million views.
“We thought, ‘Holy cow, this is what our audience likes to see,’ ” said Haley Cavinder, 20.
The Cavinders’ Fresno State women’s basketball team plays in the small Mountain West Conference and missed the NCAA tournament last season. But the twins have some of the highest name, image and likeness earning potential in all of college sports, according to Opendorse, which partners with Fresno State and many other schools.
Their synchronized dribbling and dancing videos have earned them more than 3 million followers on TikTok, and they have a growing subscriber base on YouTube, where they make videos like “A Day In Our Life as D1 Athletes In COVID.”
Since their social media presence exploded, the Cavinders have had to toe a careful line under the NCAA’s current restrictions: making sure their YouTube videos are never monetized, for example, and turning away brand after brand that has sent them messages offering products, partnerships and sponsorships.
The sisters realized the full extent of their future earning potential, they said, only once they started speaking to Opendorse.
“It was something that was pretty eye-opening, realizing that this could one day be a job for us,” Haley Cavinder said.
With California’s name, image and likeness law set to go into effect Sept. 1 – a sped-up timeline intended to put California on pace with other states – the Cavinders are trying to prepare as much as they can.
“We aren’t at a Power Five school, we aren’t football players – it kind of shows that any athlete can benefit from this if this is something you want to do,” Hanna Cavinder said. “You can have just as big of an impact as a football player could.”
Dallas Hobbs, football, Washington State
It was the pressures and anxieties of playing college football in a pandemic that made Dallas Hobbs into an activist. Last fall, the Washington State senior banded together with other Pac-12 football players to demand health and safety protections. But they also asked for what they called “economic freedom,” including medical expenses and the rights to their own names, images and likenesses.
They secured many of the covid-19 protections they wanted. But Hobbs never really believed he would see the rest happen.
“I didn’t know all this time I was fighting that I would see NIL happen in my time playing,” Hobbs said. “What I was doing was for the next generation. That was what I was pushing for.”
As July 1 inched closer, Hobbs began to think about it – tentatively. For a long time, Hobbs had to tread carefully with his graphic design business, making sure he never publicly solicited work or promoted his services. Being able to do simple things like that would go a long way, Hobbs thought.
But he had other plans, too, such as fundraising for kids to go to football camps, passing along the blessings he had gotten from his grandparents growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. NCAA rules forbid him from doing that, too.
Because Washington state didn’t have an NIL law taking effect, Hobbs was left waiting to see whether the NCAA would manage to pass its own rule – and what it would say.
“I want to celebrate with the athletes that are able to have compensation, but it sucks that I can’t celebrate having my own NIL freedoms yet,” Hobbs said in late June.
The period of waiting for the NCAA was “really frustrating,” Hobbs said. In other states, athletes and their schools had months to prepare. “It’s all up in the air, so it’s going to be a very last-minute thing for us.”
He has his graphic design business to think about – and another, yet-to-be-named venture – but Hobbs doesn’t plan to end his activism once NIL rights are a reality for college athletes. The need for rules around medical expenses for athletes, mental health care, revenue sharing, racial justice: To Hobbs, it’s all tied together, and NIL is just a steppingstone.
Trinity Thomas, gymnast, Florida
Trinity Thomas had to make sacrifices to be a college gymnast. Some of the elite gymnasts around her chose to forgo college altogether, allowing them to sign endorsement deals and earn money during the tiny window when they could compete at the highest level.
But Thomas, 20, knew she wanted to go to college. She was one of the best gymnasts in the country while she competed for the University of Florida, but she missed out on countless opportunities: endorsement deals but also smaller things, such as the leotards and products she was offered at meets. When she worked at gymnastics camps, Thomas had to make sure her name and image weren’t used to promote anything, not even on the camp website.
What stung the most was modeling, something Thomas had loved in high school. Once she got to college, Thomas had to quit those gigs, too.
But with Florida set to be one of the first states in the country to pass laws on name, image and likeness, Thomas started planning for a whole new set of opportunities. An ankle injury forced her to retire from elite gymnastics this year, missing out on a shot at the Olympics – and meaning the window of her biggest earning power, while she was on the international gymnastics stage, closed without her being allowed to ink any deals.
“I’ve always wanted my own leotard line, too, or maybe athletic wear,” Thomas said. But mostly, she can’t wait to start modeling again.
The change in rules around name, image and likeness is going to be “great for the sport,” Thomas said, by no longer forcing gymnasts to make excruciating choices at a young age about whether to forgo competing in college.
“Everybody should be able to experience college gymnastics,” Thomas said. “It’s different from elite gymnastics. My team, my coaches – it feels like a family. It made gymnastics so much more fun for me.”
Taylor Burrell, women’s volleyball, Miami
Taylor Burrell didn’t even think about it when she first shot the video. It was her sophomore year at the University of Miami, and she wanted to make a video about her experience as a college volleyball player.
“I was told I wasn’t allowed to,” said Burrell, a junior. “I found out there’s these laws – that I couldn’t use my name, image and likeness to profit off that YouTube video.”
She took the video down. But even then, it rubbed her the wrong way.
“I was upset because I honestly didn’t fully understand it,” she said.
Since then, Burrell has gained more than 10,000 followers on TikTok, turning down many offers for jobs and free products. She posts about college volleyball, including the struggles of recovering from a second torn ACL.
NCAA volleyball coaches have complained of neglect from the college sports organization. But the sport has become one of the most popular in the country for young girls – girls who are also prolific social media users. At the University of Nebraska, the most-followed athlete is not a football player but volleyball star Lexi Sun.
Burrell regularly gets messages from girls looking to play college volleyball, she said. When NIL rules go into effect, she plans to expand her presence online. If Burrell wanted, she could start to post the videos he once had to remove.
“There’s been a gap between men’s and women’s sports, but from my point of view, at least, I know volleyball’s pretty popular,” Burrell said. “I know a lot of people are more and more interested.”