College athletes capitalizing off name, image and likeness deals has forever changed the landscape of college sports.
Some will tell you that's good. Some will tell you that's bad. So, does Nevada athletic director Stephanie Rempe put NIL deals in the "good" or "bad" bucket for the future of college athletics?
"I would say for college athletics it's in the bad, but for the student-athletes it's in the good, and that's why we're here and that's what it's about," Rempe said. "I really do feel like most everybody is very supportive of the the spirit of NIL, and so we think that's good for the student-athletes for sure."
When she was LSU's executive deputy athletic director, Rempe played a role in the Louisiana legislature being one of the first states to pass an NIL bill. At the time, she compared name, image and likeness guidelines to "building an airplane when you're flying" as states fought to give their schools recruiting advantages by legalizing NIL deals. The NCAA shortly followed suit by allowing NIL deals across the nation July 1, 2021, although more guidelines are still required.
Many athletic administrators have called on Congress to step in and set those boundaries.
"It is incredibly complex," Rempe said. "The NCAA is in a really difficult spot because as soon as they make certain rules, they tend to get sued. We've seen that over the last couple of decades with all kinds of things in the NCAA. That's why there's a desire for Congress to get involved. But until there's federal legislation, every state is different, every school is different and so you never know what schools are and aren't doing. So one of the ideas out there is they do have to disclose what the student-athletes' deals are. That would be great across the country if everybody does it. If one state has that law, then you become at a disadvantage because everybody has an opportunity to see what you're doing and they can use that against you."
Rempe also said there's ambiguity in terms of the contractual obligations for these NIL deals with some athletes not getting paid out on promised monies. Rempe said firmer guidelines would help ensure a fairer process for the athletes.
"Student-athletes sign contracts to go into relationships to get the money," Rempe said. "You don't know who's on the other end of those contracts a lot. If there was a standardized contract that every student-athlete could use, there was some security that people are looking out for the best interest of the students. That's something that is also important. The different things that get complicated is, 'What kind of teeth can you put into the rules that can hold everybody accountable?' That's what people haven't been able to figure out."
Administrators across the country remain concerned with how schools are using NIL and whether players' deals are truly leveraging their brand in exchange for money or whether NIL is simply pay-for-play under a different name. The NCAA has not provided much framework or rules for NIL, which has allowed some schools to take advantage.
"The example I always use is an offensive lineman and a grocery store," Rempe said. "I'm an offensive line that everyone knows, a big guy and you say you eat at this grocery store and you sign autographs at the grocery store and they put a billboard up or whatever. That student-athlete can get compensated for that, and so that is the impetus of NIL that we are all very supportive of for the most part across the board. You don't hear a lot of criticism of that.
"Then there's the reality of finding ways to compensate student-athletes at a higher level based on the desire to keep kids or recruit kids to different institutions. So, it is illegal if you tell a recruit, 'Hey, if you come to Nevada, I'll give you a $10,000 NIL deal.' You cannot do that. We do know things like that are happening across the country, but that's not what NIL is about."
Legally, athletic departments can't arrange NIL deals for their athletes, but those NIL deals remain vital for recruiting and retaining top-level players. At Nevada, the Friends of the Pack collective plays a crucial role in securing NIL deals for Wolf Pack athletes. Friends of the Pack raises money from Nevada donors that is then distributed to Wolf Pack athletes through Blueprint Sports in exchange for community-service events.
To date, most of the Friends of the Pack donations have come through a handful of major donors. The Wolf Pack is pushing for a change to that model with a larger base of support with Friends of the Pack launching a microdonation plan that includes monthly or annual pledges. Despite being hired by Nevada a year after NIL was adopted by the NCAA, Rempe believes the Wolf Pack has made progress in this area to remain competitive in the Mountain West.
"I absolutely believe we're right where we need to be," Rempe said. "There might be a couple of schools ahead of us in terms of sport by sport. We can always do more to educate our student-athletes. We can always do more to get out in the community and get businesses to participate. For sure, we need to grow in that space, but I don't feel like we're losing ground, and that is because of donors. That is because of our Nevada supporters. We have a group of about 10 people who have really allowed us to be successful and play in that space in a really, really effective way, and that's a testament to this community and the importance of the Wolf Pack."
While schools cannot promise NIL deals to athletes in the recruiting process, they can lay out what previous athletes in their program have been able to make in such deals. In the past, the top priorities for athletes in recruiting included things like coaching staff, immediate playing time, academic opportunities, geography, facilities, conference affiliation and games on television, among other items. Now, NIL offerings might top the list.
"It honestly depends on the sport," Rempe said of the importance of NIL to recruiting. "So, it has jumped to the top across the country in men's basketball for sure. Football is not far behind. All of those other things you listed are still critical to the University of Nevada. That we have great coaches, a great institution, obviously a beautiful area, a strong conference. All of those things are still very much at play here. Playing time. But a couple of our coaches talk about that. In particular, our soccer coach was just talking about that. She feels like students are going to where they can play and be part of a team. They're not going to the shiny lights of a big institution that plays in a particular conference or whatever.
"If you talk to our coaches, in particular football and men's basketball, NIL is very much a part of their daily activity, and that's hard. It's completely just like the transfer portal. It's completely reshaped how coaches deal with their rosters, deal with their students, deal with their recruits, deal with the other players in the industry. It's really been different, and it's not going away. So, we have to play in that space, and we've done, I think, a remarkable job over the last two years."
Friends of the Pack NIL deals have essentially tied compensation with community events. Rempe said the stronger the bonds between the athlete and community, the more likely the player is to stay at the school and the more likely the community is to attend games.
"That is important regardless of NIL because that's more individual student-athletes doing activities in the community," Rempe said. "For us, since I got here, I very much shared the importance of our student-athletes, our coaches and our staff getting into this community. And I think (UNR) President (Brian) Sandoval is the one that says, 'If you hug the community, they'll hug you back.' And I have felt that here, and it is critical that our coaches know and understand how important it is to get our student-athletes and our coaches and our staff out. I think we're doing a great job. We've put some parameters in place, expectations in place with our coaches, and so that's a priority for us."
You can watch Stephanie Rempe's full NSN Tonight NIL interview below:
"Friends of the Pack" is Nevada athletics' largest NIL collective and raises money that's distributed to Wolf Pack athletes. It has began a crowdfunding model that includes monthly and annual memberships, including the bronze pass ($25/month or $250/year) the silver pass ($50/month or $500/year) and the gold pass ($100/month or $1,000/year). You can learn more about "Friends of the Pack" here.