SE Perspective | Navigating the NIL World as an International Student-Athlete

July 1, 2021 marked a massive shift in the collegiate athletic landscape.

After countless calls over the past decade for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to revise its outdated amateurism rules, its Division I Board of Directors approved an interim Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) policy. The amendment allows college athletes nationwide to now hire agents, secure endorsement deals, and overall earn an income through being an athlete.

The ruling sent shockwaves into the intercollegiate athletics scene as athletes were ecstatic about finally having the opportunity to cash in on their hard work on the field, track, court, and pool.

We saw the first deal brokered a minute into the NIL era with Jackson State defensive end Antwan Owens signing an endorsement contract with Black-owned hair care company 3 Kings Grooming. Since then, tens of thousands of students have profited from their Name, Image, and Likeness. Some deals are as small as making a few hundred dollars from private lessons, and others are as big as the eight million dollar deal top high school football recruit Nico Iamaleava received when he committed to the University of Tennessee.

To put that into perspective, outside of the Power Five conferences and American Athletic Conference (AAC), the quarterback will be making more than any head coach in college football.

Though numerous athletes have significantly benefitted from the NIL era, one group yet to take advantage of the new ruling in the United States is international student-athletes.

International students who intend to enroll in educational institutions in the United States need an F-1 or student visa in order to legally do so. Obtaining the visa comes with multiple stipulations and restrictions, such as required credit hours per semester and where one can work. According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), international students are only permitted to work on campus during their first academic year in the United States. After completing their first year, the students may work off-campus through Curriculum Practical Training (CPT) and/or pre-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT).

Considering the above, it would seem like international student-athletes would be able to profit from NIL after completing a year of education in the United States.

Wrong.

Through a CPT and pre-completion OPT, while an international student can work off-campus in America, the job has to be related to their field of study.

As one can imagine, no college major correlates with having a Milo’s Tea Company sponsorship or being a Lululemon athlete. That means it would be illegal for an international student-athlete to profit off their NIL. The only exception to the rule would be if they secured a deal while in their home country.

We see this happen with the University of Miami (UM) Hurricanes’ football team.

Over the past year, while most of the Cane football team benefitted from their NIL, punter Lou Hedly was ineligible to do so until a few weeks ago. After months of patiently waiting, The Ray Guy Award finalist, an accolade honoring the nation’s top punter, inked a NIL deal with Miami-based healthcare technology company LifeWallet. He was finally able to secure the partnership through help from UM booster John Ruiz, who got the company to have the deal done in Hedly’s home country, Australia, therefore complying with the USCIS laws.

Fellow Aussie and Nebraska basketball player Jaz Shelley has done something similar, partnering with clothing company BBB Printing and Mexican BBQ restaurant Muchachos.

While these two athletes have been able to find loopholes in the rules, they are the exceptions.

French Olympian and Arizona State freshman Leon Marchand does not profit from NIL despite being a 2-time NCAA Champion in men’s swimming and the fastest collegiate 200-yard individual medley swimmer in history. The same debacle applies to NCAA 100-meter champion and Bowerman award semi-finalist Julien Alfred from the Caribbean island Saint Lucia.

The fact is, international athletes being unable to profit from their Name, Image, and Likeness is another barrier to success for a group that already has so many limitations on its freedom in the United States. These talented individuals come from all over the world and make massive sacrifices to play sports and gain an education, in hopes of providing for their families in the future. With so many roadblocks in their way, not having an opportunity to earn income through their NIL contributes significantly towards diminishing the chance for prosperity for these young men and women.

So how can we change that?

There are a few ways. One is having more companies do what LifeWallet did for Hedly and broker deals with student-athletes while home for a summer break or similar holiday.

Another is calling on the USCIS to update its outdated laws, primarily written in 1986 and 1996. Individuals can do so by calling on Congress members to help push for a change in federal immigration laws. They can also sign petitions such as the one NIL platform NOCAP Sports created three months ago calling for USCIS to issue a Policy Memorandum that broadens or modernizes the current rules.

Just like Americans, international student-athletes have worked extremely hard to earn an opportunity to compete at the collegiate level. They should be rewarded, not punished, for working their way up to become some of the best athletes in their home nation and worldwide.

To learn more about International Student-Athlete NIL view this resource.

SE Perspective is a blog series bringing a point of view from an individual in sports. This article titled, “Navigating the NIL World as an International Student-Athlete” is by Jesse Marsh. Jesse is a former Villanova swimming and diving student-athlete and team captain. And a current graduate student at Northwestern School of Journalism (Medill). Jesse is also an intern for SportsEpreneur.

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