NIL and Ethical Issues in College Athletics

The date is December 10, 2005. USC Running back Reggie Bush wins the Heisman trophy one month before beating the Oklahoma Sooners in the national championship game. Flash forward to September 2010. Reggie Bush relinquishes his Heisman trophy after an investigation found him guilty of breaking NCAA rules by receiving gifts and endorsements from his university while he was a player. Flash forward again to today. The NCAA still refuses to recognize Bush’s Heisman win even with the NCAA rules allowing athletes to receive monetary compensation for their name, image, and likeness (NIL). Bush’s vacant Heisman and the NCAA’s reluctance to recognize it forces us to examine the present ethical issues in college athletics, including whether players should get paid or not, what the advantages and disadvantages of them getting paid are, and how to maintain equality between universities in college athletics.

Ethical Issues in College Athletics: Amateurism

One of the most concerning ethical issues in college athletics before the NIL rule change was the issue of fairness towards student-athletes and the idea of amateurism. 

Before the NIL rule change, student-athletes could not be paid outside the confines of their college scholarships because they were considered amateur athletes. As college sports grew in popularity and amassed billions of dollars, players were still not receiving any monetary benefits that they had a direct impact on helping grow. Soon, the NCAA began to feel pressure from players to reevaluate their stance on student-athlete compensation. 

In the summer of 2021, this culminated in the Supreme Court case NCAA vs. Alston in which they ruled that it was unlawful for players to be uncompensated for their participation in college athletics. The NCAA then did a 180° on its compensation rules and removed the amateurism formerly present in college athletics, allowing athletes to receive income from their name, image, and likeness.

This change in rules by the NCAA has done some great things. Student-athletes can now be financially stable during their college tenure because they can receive income independently from their school. They now also have a higher likelihood of being financially stable during and after their college careers. It also gives student-athletes a financial safety net to fall back on if they are injured and have no way of generating value for themselves by playing. Finally, the rule change allows for more compensation for athletes outside of the top revenue-generating college sports like men’s football, basketball, and women’s basketball.

Ethical Issues in College Athletics: Fairness

One of the main ethical issues in college athletics is how to maintain fairness from school to school.

For student-athletes, NIL was originally supposed to supplement their education, not decide it.  Athletes would choose schools based on the value of their education, how they could help the player grow as an athlete and person, and the individual success they could achieve in their sport. They could then license their name, image, and likeness for a price that reflected their market worth based on their performance and notoriety. However, NIL quickly became an integral reason for athletes to choose certain schools over others.

Now, college athletics has transitioned into a “survival of the fittest” ecosystem, where more money means better athletes. Universities are still not allowed to pay players to play, however. Instead, many of the larger universities have independent NIL collectives that secure endorsements for players. Federal regulation is minimal, however, so each state has established various statutes on what NIL laws they abide by. 

The advent of collectives and “pay-to-play” has created a free agency in college athletics that supersedes current regulations. For now, the more endorsements your collective can acquire, the better players you can recruit, and the better your athletic program is.

Some say that this decision has prevented fairness in college athletics. Because some smaller schools don’t have collectives that can secure big endorsements, they are falling behind in recruiting and can’t improve their athletic programs. As this continues, these smaller schools will not be able to compete with larger programs, and it may increase the gap of competitive inequality within college athletics.

How to Prevent Ethical Issues in College Athletics

To prevent another discussion about ethical issues in college athletics like this one, the NCAA and every university’s paramount focus should be on the health and well-being of their athletes. These institutions should do whatever is required to protect student-athlete rights by any means necessary, especially if they continue to make them financially secure.

On the other hand, brands, agents, and collectives can ensure equality in the future of college athletics by finding endorsements for student-athletes they represent through Icon Source. Our easy-to-use platform connects brands and athletes for long-lasting partnerships and impactful endorsements. Sign up to learn more and start leaving your mark on the sports world.


Is NIL an ethical issue?

NIL is not inherently an ethical issue. However, how NIL is implemented and regulated in various contexts can raise ethical issues in college athletics. For example, there may be concerns about fair compensation for student-athletes, potential exploitation, and inequities in the distribution of opportunities and resources. Overall, the ethical implications of NIL depend on the specific circumstances and policies surrounding it.

What impact does NIL have on college athletes?

With NIL rights, college athletes can earn money through endorsements, sponsorships, social media, and other ventures based on their personal brand and popularity. This allows them to profit from their own talent and hard work and can provide financial support for themselves and their families.

NIL can also lead to increased visibility and recognition for college athletes and may provide more opportunities for them to develop their personal and professional skills.

However, there are also potential ethical issues in college athletics, such as distractions from academic and athletic pursuits, unequal distribution of opportunities and resources, and conflicts of interest between athletes and their institutions or sponsors. The full impact of NIL on college athletes will depend on how it is implemented and regulated in the coming years.

Are NIL deals ruining college sports?

There is no evidence to suggest that Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) deals are ruining college sports. Many argue that NIL deals are a positive development that can provide much-needed financial support for college athletes, who have historically not been compensated for their contributions to college sports.
However, some ethical issues in college athletics and NIL will need to be addressed as it continues to become a normalized aspect of amateur sports.

Chase Garrett

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