Since last summer—when NIL laws came into force, and the Supreme Court struck down NCAA limits on education-related benefits—there’s been no shortage of questions from schools about how their athletes can be compensated. But finding answers, or even just seeking them out, has become an increasingly fraught exercise.
What is typically relied on as the most direct line for guidance on how to comply with association rules—the NCAA’s Self Reports Online (SRO) portal—has been a no-go zone when it comes to NIL- or Alston-related matters.
Since July 1, the NCAA has adopted an interim NIL policy, lacking in detail, but which “preserves the commitment to avoid pay-for-play and improper inducements.” However, where the rubber meets the road on these interpretations, the NCAA has stayed in neutral.
“Because of the lawsuits, including the antitrust (actions), they are very cautious in terms of the guidance they want to provide,” says Jason Leonard, the president of the National Association of Athletic Compliance.
To the extent that the NCAA has responded to formal interpretation requests, compliance administrators tell Sportico, the governing body mostly offers broad and generic directives for athletic departments to consult their institutional policies and state laws. In other instances, the queries have simply gone ignored.
One FBS school’s athletic compliance director, who was among several who requested anonymity to speak candidly on the topic, says two of his SRO queries sent months ago have been met with silence—one involving outside income for Olympic athletes, and the other that deals with summer camps.
An NCAA spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
With the association effectively useless, compliance administrators are gauging where else they can turn for advice without potentially implicating themselves in a collusive scheme. In addition to the admonitions from Alston, administrators are closely following the developments of the House v. NCAA class action, which challenges the NCAA’s existing restraints to NIL.
To that end, some compliance officials have simply adopted the stance of the Three Wise Monkeys: See no NIL, hear no NIL, speak no NIL.
“The fear is just future lawsuits,” said the FBS compliance director.
Added an SEC school’s compliance director: “It feels like we are not asking each other whether things are permissible nearly as we do on other topics… It is definitely forge your own path, in line with your state law, school policy, and school philosophy.”
Jeffrey Kessler, the athletes’ lead attorney in Alston, says this is an appropriate reaction.
“This is known as antitrust compliance,” Kessler told Sportico. “Every other business in the world knows you don’t talk to your competitors about how you are going to compensate your employees. You also don’t get any trade association to tell you how they would compensate your employees.”
Not every compliance administrator is operating with the same concern that their NIL-related emails will end up as discovery in a future antitrust lawsuit. In some cases, athletic department officials have tried to strike a balance, limiting their discussion groups but still seeking input from beyond campus.
Another FBS compliance director said he felt on safe ground parlaying with his counterparts from in-state schools, since they are all operating under the same NIL legislation.
Because the district court’s original ruling in the grant-in-aid litigation provided that conferences could set limits on education-related benefits, Leonard says Big 12 school compliance officials have decided they can talk with each other, but he’s refrained from engaging peers outside the conference.
Leonard says that NAAC, which hosts an annual meeting and monthly calls for schools’ compliance officials, has also been cautious to stick to questions about monitoring logistics, as opposed to rule interpretations.
“We have always lived by the rules,” Leonard said, “and obviously the rules have changed, so it takes us some getting used to.”