CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois state representative Kam Buckner, a former University of Illinois football player, remembers what it was like to play for a million-dollar program — without receiving a dime of the revenue.
Those days are now over.
Twelve states, including Illinois and Nebraska, passed laws allowing college athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness that will go in effect Thursday.
According to an ESPN report, schools in states that have an NIL law on the books are instructed to follow the state law. The NCAA instructed schools located in states without an active NIL law to create and publish their own policies in order to provide clarity to the gray area and come up with a plan to resolve any disputes that arise.
The NCAA had hoped that the United States Congress would pass federal legislation that provided a single, national framework for college athletes and schools, but that hasn't happened.
"This bill is long overdue," Buckner said Tuesday a few minutes before Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the Illinois bill into law. "And what we are signaling here is that we can not continue to economically suppress these young people while they infuse tremendous amounts of money into our economies."
While the NCAA fought against NIL ruling, many universities have taken a proactive approach, though the unknown is causing trepidation for universities at every level.
"As we've been saying internally throughout this whole thing, we are building this airplane while we're flying," Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman said. "It will be an imperfect process, but we're committed to working together to move forward in this space."
'Changes are coming'
Many schools around the country and in the Big Ten, including Illinois, Wisconsin and Nebraska, have a branded approach via a partnership with Opendorse, an endorsement company that has worked with several professional athletes including NBA star Stephen Curry and NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. The role of Opendorse is to help facilitate the transactions between student-athletes and businesses. Iowa has a similar partnership with INFLCR.
Nebraksa was among the first to partner with the Lincoln, Nebraska-based Opendorse. Nebraska produces player-specific branding in-house and then uses Opendorse’s platform as the vehicle for disseminating that content.
Athletes in Nebraska already have an opportunity through Opendorse through fast-food restaurant Runza, which is offering deals to the first 100 current athletes who opt in and promote the restaurant's reward app to their followers on social media. The restaurant, which has 82 operations in the state, is the first known business to publicly offer a deal to Nebraska athletes.
The payment will be a single flat amount for everyone regardless of what sport they play or which in-state school they attend.
Opendorse had long been eyeing college athletics as the next frontier, and includes educational elements and information on how college athletes can increase their marketability online in its programming.
“It’s in our wheelhouse,” said Adi Kunalic, who co-founded Opendorse along with fellow former Husker Blake Lawrence. "… It was something (Nebraska) had already started talking about internally — ‘Changes are coming, what are we doing about it?’ — and the marriage was born there.”
Every Illinois, Wisconsin and Nebraska athlete will have a profile on Opendorse that a business owner can click on to see which activities the athlete prefers to use their NIL for and their rates. Partnerships can range from an Instagram post to an in-person interview, depending on what the two sides agree upon.
Athletes likely won’t be permitted to enter into NIL agreements that conflict with their institution’s brand partnerships. For example, Wisconsin volleyball star Dana Rettke couldn’t sign an NIL agreement with Nike because Wisconsin is an Under Armour program.
The framework for how athletes can use their school’s name or brands — for example, would Graham Mertz be allowed to be identified as “Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz”? — still is being ironed out.
Wisconsin also has a partnership with brand consultant Jeremy Darlow, and he's worked with UW's volleyball players and wrestlers in regards to building their social brands.
In Illinois, any agreement that is $500 or more must have a contract, which can be made through Opendorse for a fee or separately between the two parties. If the contract is drawn up outside of Opendorse, it must still be uploaded to Opendorse so that Illinois' athletic departments have a record of it. Additionally, if an agreement is made entirely through Opendorse, the Opendorse commission fee is 30% and that must be paid entirely by the business.
Jay Ramshaw, a former Illini football player who is now the vice president of Ramshaw Real Estate, said any business would look to bypass a 30% commission through Opendorse, especially if the endorsement agreement is for a large amount of money.
Brian Russell, Illinois' senior associate director of athletics, said businesses are allowed to do that, but the contract must still be uploaded to Opendorse. There is no fee to upload a contract made outside of Opendorse.
However, aside from a noticeable commission fee through Opendorse, Ramshaw said one of his main concerns was in regards to the student-athletes, whose shoes he was once in.
"Who's reviewing the contracts for the players?" Ramshaw asked. "Who's making sure that they're getting into contracts that are not lopsided in favor of the business and puts the student-athlete in a precarious position?"
'On his or her own accord'
Russell said Illinois can not review contracts for student-athletes nor set up deals with businesses. According to the Illiniois' Influence (NIL) website, a "student-athlete must enter into the (business) arrangement on his or her own accord."
At Iowa, INFLCR allows the athletic department to track all NIL deals to ensure that they comply with NCAA rules.
At schools with less visible athletes, like Illinois State in Bloomington, Illinois, there's been more of a wait-and-see approach, though ISU athletic director Kyle Brennan is sure there will be opportunities for ISU's athletes.
"There is still quite a bit we don’t know and are working on figuring out how everything is going to work here at Illinois State," Brennan said. "Our department is working diligently to provide information and assistance to our student-athletes, coaches and staff. We are going to assist our Redbird student-athletes in any way we can and work through this new opportunity for them as things progress in the future.
"But my prediction is that it will not take long (for ISU students to receive opportunities). I believe there is interest from the business community and I know our athletes are excited to participate, so in my opinion, this is coming fast for all of us."
Athletic directors at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and Eastern Illinois in Charleston both said they supported their students' pursuit of endorsements and are available to provide guidance.
"This is certainly something very positive for student-athletes," SIU AD Liz Jarnigan said. "We support our student-athletes in that regard."
IN THEIR WORDS: Midwest athletes, officials react to student athlete pay laws
Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez
Illinois senior guard Trent Frazier
University of Wisconsin Athletic Director Chris McIntosh
University of Nebraska football coach Scott Frost
University of Nebraska Interim Athletic Director Garrett Klassy
Former University of Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos
University of Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta
University of Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman
University of Illinois men's basketball coach Brad Underwood
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