Last month, some 300 college athletes, 100 athletic department administrators, members of 20 different media outlets and representatives of 50 companies gathered at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta for the first-ever NIL Summit.
The event, consisting of three “immersive” days of teachings and panel discussions, trophy handouts and merry-making, was billed as a forum for “Democratizing College Athletics.” Its title sponsor was INFLCR, the athlete software platform, which has contracted with over 220 Division I schools and claims 75,000 college athletes as weekly active users of its technology.
With an air of celebration, the NIL Summit was largely set apart from the deeper and often gloomy philosophical debates that have swirled around college athlete name, image and likeness rights over the last 365 days.
But Jason Belzer, the sports agent and lawyer who founded the summit, said philosophy wasn’t on the docket—practicality was. “It was not like a thought leadership conference,” he said.
Belzer, whose family hails from Moldova, compares the dawning of college athlete NIL to the breakup of the Soviet Union, and wanted the summit to help people find their way through the disruption and sudden lack of regulation.
“There are going to be individuals to fill that void, so we tried to position ourselves to help navigate it,” said Belzer, who also launched the consulting firm, Student Athlete NIL, in early 2021. “At the summit, there were kids we were having conversations with that are not getting good advice, taking out money, taking money and not paying taxes—that is not a healthy situation for anybody.”
In the big picture, the summit offered differing, if not competing, visions of where NIL has taken intercollegiate athletics in its first year. From one perspective, it underscored how much change has occurred: Who would have imagined, just a few years ago, so many eligible college athletes gathering together to discuss how they plan to earn money while playing, much less talking about these plans with reporters? At the same time, the event demonstrated how easily a movement or a cause, however revolutionary, could be integrated into the college sports industrial complex—and its related bureaucracy.
Though its attendance was diverse, the summit had a few conspicuous absences, including the three individuals who are arguably most responsible for marshaling college athlete publicity rights into its current state of existence: California state Sen. Nancy Skinner, who co-sponsored the first-in-the-nation NIL bill that set the dominoes in motion; Andy Schwarz, the antitrust economist who masterminded Skinner’s bill as model legislation for the rest of the country; and Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Player Association, who led the lobbying effort to get Senate Bill 206 and other states’ nascent NIL laws enacted.
Schwarz, invoking his own Soviet comparisons, analogized the summit to the prospecting young Americans who rushed to Prague after the Berlin Wall fell, only to pack up and return home when opportunities turned scarce.
“The fact there wasn’t that room on that dais for any of the people who were involved in the first state law—and haven’t personally tried to get rich off of NIL—I think shows they didn’t particularly see themselves as being focused on the athletes rights movement,” Schwarz said, “but rather the commercialization phase of things.”
Huma, in an interview, says he had no interest in attending the summit. Despite dedicating years in pursuit of NIL reform, Huma has long viewed it as an iterative step to a truly free market for college athletes. From almost the moment NIL came to pass, the former UCLA linebacker shifted his focus to prying open the market in other ways, such as revenue-sharing with schools and employment protections.
“In terms of college athletes and breaking new ground, NIL is more put to rest than not,” Huma told Sportico. “We are onto the next thing. We are looking at health and safety. We are looking at compensation.”
Over the course of NIL’s freshman season, Schwarz says he’s been driven “crazy” by the public discourse over the reform movement’s original intentions, and whether they’ve been contravened by the increasingly relentless efforts from schools and their boosters to use endorsement money as recruiting inducements.
“On every talk radio show whenever I got into my car, I would hear, ‘This was not what the NIL rights movement was about,’” Schwarz said. “It felt like there was a massive retcon effort going on.”
Spurring a system of competitive bidding, Schwarz says, is “exactly what this was intended for.”
In a Sportico op-ed this week, Tom McMillen, CEO of the FBS athletic director trade association, LEAD1, argued that the best way to create stability in college sports is to further consecrate NIL within athletic departments. In 2018, LEAD1 polled the college ADs it represents, finding that only 26% were in favor of college athletes being able to earn endorsement money related to their athletic status.
“Competition and capitalism is driving the train, and it surpasses preferences to restrict players rights,” said Huma. “It is a very visible transition of watching biases and preferences fall in the wake of competition.”
Belzer concedes that the most stable end game for college sports would likely be for a system of direct compensation to the athletes, beyond what they can earn with their NIL. However, he still advocates for trying to professionalize and normalize the current situation, even if it’s just for a while.
“Chaos doesn’t benefit anybody, except the people who are unscrupulous,” Belzer said. “We have to be very conscious of where this is headed and steer it to a place where it is not chaos. Professional sports is not chaos, either. But right now, college athletics is an absolute cluster—- and s—show, and that is not how any system should operate in an advanced, democratic country.”
Schwarz, however, isn’t so sure.
“It is highlighting the contradictions in the rest of the system,” he said. “It is like if you release a little water from the damn, it stresses the whole dam. But the dam itself is a net bad for society, so dismantling the rest of it to resolve the stress will be win/win.”
Planning for next summer’s NIL Summit is already underway, and Belzer says he hopes for it to double the attendance numbers from this year’s event. However, if the NCAA’s remaining pay prohibitions fall, a freestanding notion of NIL, much less an annual event dedicated to it, may suddenly seem obsolete.