The Difference Between an Unpaid and a Paid Student-Athlete? Not Much.

Until now, there was no way to test this thesis. Antitrust economists like Andy Schwarz, who played a key behind-the-scenes role in bringing the lawsuits against the association — may have scoffed at the N.C.A.A.’s arguments. But during the various antitrust trials, the plaintiffs’ economists went to court with models showing that paying players would have no effect, while the N.C.A.A. had models showing the opposite. Who could say for sure?

Starting in 2019, however, state legislatures began passing laws forbidding universities to punish athletes who took endorsement fees or cut licensing deals — “name, image and likeness,” or N.I.L., deals. The N.C.A.A. tried to grab control of the N.I.L. phenomenon but failed miserably. With a July 2021 deadline fast approaching, the association finally decided to allow college athletes to accept N.I.L. money without fear of losing their athletic eligibility.

Three months in, the results have been nothing short of remarkable. First, it turns out that a lot of companies were eager to sign deals with college athletes. High-profile football players landed deals almost immediately. The Alabama quarterback Bryce Young is said to have deals worth close to $1 million. Auburn’s Bo Nix and Alabama’s Malachi Moore are both endorsing Milo’s Tea, an Alabama company. A moving company based in Tampa, Fla., College Hunks Hauling Junk, signed two members of the Miami Hurricanes football team.

But it’s not just football players — and it’s not just male athletes in the “revenue sports.” The Connecticut basketball star Paige Bueckers trademarked her nickname, Paige Buckets, with the expectation of a branded product sometime down the line. Lexi Sun, a Nebraska volleyball player and Instagram influencer, started her own clothing brand. She also signed a deal with Borsheims, the Omaha jewelry store owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Boost Mobile, a wireless provider, said it was signing “hundreds of N.C.A.A. athletes across a wide variety of sports and universities.” And on and on.

Before N.I.L. payments were allowed, athletic administrators expressed fear that the deals would create dissension on teams between those who had them and those who didn’t. It hasn’t happened; instead many athletes seem to view N.I.L. deals as something any of them can land with enough initiative.

Another fear was that universities would use N.I.L. deals as a tool to lure talented high school athletes. In fact, that has been happening. The University of Nebraska, for example, has set up a program that will “position all Husker student-athletes for success in N.I.L.,” according to its athletic director. And when Alabama’s football coach, Nick Saban, let it be known that Bryce Young was getting rich from his N.I.L. contracts, he was sending a message to every athlete he hopes to recruit.

As the economist and N.C.A.A. critic Ted Tatos put it on Twitter: “It’s fascinating to watch schools go from ‘NIL will end college sports’ to ‘pick our school because we offer the best NIL opportunities.’ It’s almost as though they always knew their previous position was utter nonsense.”

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