Stephanie Rempe and a small group of staff members at LSU have spent several hours each day in June diving down a seemingly endless series of rabbit holes.
Rempe, who serves as the executive deputy director of athletics/chief operating officer of the LSU athletic department, pieced together a task force more than a year ago to prepare the Tigers for what she believes will be the most transformative change to hit college sports since Title IX arrived nearly a half century ago. Starting this Thursday, NCAA athletes will be allowed to make money by selling the rights to their names, images and likenesses (NIL).
For now, a mixture of state laws and NCAA guidelines is expected to provide a rough outline for what kind of money-making ventures will be allowed and what kind of products athletes can endorse. At least seven states will have NIL laws go into effect starting on July 1. Schools located in states without a law on the books will likely be required to form their own policies for athletes based on a short list of requirements from NCAA leadership, according to a proposed rule change that is being reviewed by the Division I Council in a meeting Monday afternoon.
The loose framework provided in the NCAA proposal and in some of the state laws creates ample gray area, and leaves it largely up to individual schools to make determinations on specific deals that fall in that questionable range. Thus the rabbit holes, which have spiraled and collided inside LSU’s meetings for the past several weeks as Rempe and her team try to sort through an endless stream of hypothetical situations in order to craft a policy that can turn that gray area into black-and-white answers for their athletes. Despite their best efforts, Rempe knows there will be plenty of unanticipated situations that don’t come with an easy answer.
“It’s like building an airplane when you’re flying,” she told ESPN last week. “That’s what we’re doing.”
Most athletic department officials around the country assumed for much of the past year that the NCAA or Congress would eventually prescribe a set of nationwide rules to guide them through the specifics of what athletes can do and provide the infrastructure needed to enforce those rules. But attempts to pass a federal NIL law remain bogged down by partisan disagreements. And a previous, more detailed NCAA proposal that was nearly two years in the making was fully derailed just last week by increased concern that blanket restrictions on how players could make money could violate antitrust laws. In a confidential memo written late last week, the NCAA’s working draft of the interim NIL policy acknowledged that “the current environment does not allow for as much guidance as the membership prefers and to which it has become accustomed.”
As it became increasingly clear in recent weeks that help was not coming from above, schools were left scrambling to sort through the details themselves. Demand for outside help has skyrocketed in June, according to Casey Schwab, the CEO of NIL consulting firm Altius Sports Partners.
“Up until Memorial Day, there had been this gradual curve of light bulbs going off around the country about how big these changes are going to be,” Schwab said. “In the month of June, the gradual curve turned into a steep, steep incline. Everyone is starting to get it.”
Politicians, athletic directors and other college sports stakeholders have predicted that the lack of a clear national standard for NIL rule changes will lead to some degree of chaos this summer. That does not mean that games this coming fall will be interrupted or look any different than normal for fans. It doesn’t mean that dozens of players are destined to be suddenly declared ineligible to play because they misunderstood the nuances of the new rules.
The chaos is likely to be contained within the offices of athletic departments where officials used to working with strict regulations are forced to field questions without firm answers. Schwab said the potential for problems to seep into public view could come if and when athletes and their schools disagree on the interpretation of what is allowed in the new rules.
By way of example, let’s dive down a rabbit hole. Louisiana’s state law, which is expected to be signed by the governor sometime this week, prohibits college athletes from endorsing alcohol. It’s clear that means an LSU football player could not appear in a Budweiser commercial, but could he endorse a local liquor store that also sells soft drinks and snacks? Could he endorse a Baton Rouge bar that doubles as a pool hall? What about a restaurant that serves food along with alcohol? Where do you draw the line? Schools will have to make the initial decision.
When an athlete (and potentially their agent) disagrees with a school’s decision to prevent them from cashing in on a certain opportunity, disputes could turn awkward quickly. Major disagreements will likely have to be resolved through the legal system. Rolling out the lawyers to battle your own athletes will be an unpleasant experience for schools and teams that are constantly locked in a hyper-competitive battle to recruit and retain talent.
Rempe said she’s confident that LSU’s department is set up to work with their athletes to avoid most conflicts. She said having a compliance department that is viewed by their athletes as a group that is there to help them rather than play the role of traffic cop is essential. She also said it was helpful for her team to know what the state law was likely going to allow in order to start building their policy.
Most schools — those in 40-some states without legislation that goes into effect this summer — haven’t had the luxury of knowing the framework they’ll need to use to form their own policy.
Scott Dolson will celebrate his first anniversary of being hired as Indiana’s vice president and director of intercollegiate athletics on July 1. Indiana is among the states that have no NIL legislation in the works.
Dolson said he drew up a plan for implementing NIL changes in his job interview and formed a task force to start putting his plan into action during his first days in his new office. He said the Hoosiers’ policy for NIL deals is 90% complete but still waiting on instructions from the NCAA before it can be completed. He said concrete answers for what will be allowed are hard to provide.
“At this point, there’s not a ton,” Dolson said in an interview last week. “What we try to do now is provide the confidence that we will have the answers.”
Dolson said he has no doubt that Indiana will be able to provide the answers and resources its athletes need, but that there will inevitably be scenarios that require extra discussion and thought because no specific rule and no precedent exists yet. Right now, they are waiting on the NCAA to officially adopt new rules before finalizing their plans to implement changes on campus by the end of the week.
“We’ll be nimble,” he said. “We’re not sure when we’ll receive more information, but based on that we’ll be ready for the rest of the dominoes to fall. We’ll have to finalize the draft of our policy, meet with our coaches and then meet as soon as possible with our student-athletes and their parents to get that information out. But we’ll be ready. If we had to do something today, we could do something today.”
Indiana’s planning for this summer’s major change started a year ago when Dolson appointed two of his staff members to lead the department’s NIL efforts. He said they’ve worked with business and media professors on campus to figure out how to best prep their athletes as well as hiring a pair of outside firms to provide a better picture of the national landscape. Indiana hired Opendorse, which offers schools a tech-based platform to help facilitate NIL deals among other services, to help its athletes get the most out of the new opportunities in front of them. Months later, they hired Schwab’s firm, Altius, to help the department think through the best ways to create and implement their new policies.
Schwab said many of the schools he’s spoken with in the past year were initially focused on resources that would maximize what their athletes could make, especially by building an athlete’s brand on social media platforms, so they could tout those tools in recruiting pitches to prospective athletes. Largely because they were waiting for further guidance, Schwab says most athletic departments only recently started thinking through all the other details of how this would change their jobs and reshape roles within the department.
“You need to have a person on campus who is more of a facilitator than a decision-maker,” he said. “That person who can know which tool to pull out of the toolbox depending on the question they get from an athlete or a coach.”
Rempe and Dolson both said it’s been a long process to get ready, and one that has ramped up to be more work than they could have initially imagined in the past month.
“I don’t think I had any idea how big of a lift this would be,” Rempe said. “We all assumed it would run through the NCAA or Congress for the longest time. You just don’t naturally go down all these rabbit holes six months ago. We just kept it big picture and then when it got confusing we just said, ‘Oh, somehow we’ll figure this out.'”
Rempe said she believes LSU has most of it figured out as the date for this major transformative change arrives, but she doesn’t know if any of this will get easier or much more complicated when the calendar flips to July.