More than two years have passed since the first state laws were enacted that allowed college student-athletes to receive revenue through name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities.
Since that groundbreaking date of July 1, 2021, the NIL landscape remains without regulation and has launched into high-school scene as well.
"In many ways, it's been a net positive for young people," Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey says. "But we all know there are stories -- some told and others not told -- of promises made but not fulfilled, of inducements offered but not provided and other behaviors in this space that rightly cause concern. The reality is that our student-athletes deserve something better than a patchwork of state laws that support name, image and likeness activities.
"If states will not enforce the laws and states are going to prohibit the NCAA or conferences from enforcing these reasonable policies, then congressional action is the only way to provide a national uniform standard for name, image and likeness activity and to draw the lines around the boundaries that do not simply become pay for play."
It has not taken long for a handful of athletes to significantly prosper, with On3 Sports estimating that Southern California basketball player Bronny James has an NIL valuation of $6.2 million. The son of legendary NBA star LeBron James is followed on the On3 list by LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne ($3.3 million), Texas quarterback Arch Manning ($2.9 million), Southern California quarterback and 2022 Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams ($2.6 million), and Oregon quarterback Bo Nix ($1.7 million).
The highest NIL valuations among SEC football players according to On3 Sports are Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava ($1.2 million), Texas A&M receiver Evan Stewart ($1.1 million) and South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler ($1 million), with Ole Miss running back Quinshon Judkins fourth at $963,000.
While the amount is far less, the ability to profit on their personal brand trickled down to the high school level as well when Tennessee's prep sports governing body, the TSSAA, voted last December to allow student-athletes to sign NIL deals.
The first local athlete to take advantage of that opportunity was Bradley Central star Boo Carter, who is rated as one of the state's top prep football prospects and is committed to the University of Tennessee. Carter signed an endorsement deal wth SuckerPunch Gourmet Inc. less than a week after the new rule was introduced.
Last April, five players who helped the Bradley Central girls' basketball team win the Class AAA state championship also signed an endorsement deal. As part of their deal, Avary Brewer, Sloan Carpenter, Kimora Fields, Hannah Jones and Harmonie Ware were featured in a 34-second video promoting Wholesale Carpet Sales & Flooring in Cleveland.
Productivity, recruiting status and social media all factor into NIL valuations, with Dunne possessing roughly 12 million combined followers on her TikTok and Instagram accounts. Judkins, on the other hand, was a three-star signee this time last year and has 125,000 followers on social media, but his 1,567 rushing yards last season were the most by an SEC freshman since Herschel Walker in 1980.
Of course, most college competitors have nowhere close to that kind of NIL earning power. University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director Mark Wharton said this summer that there have been 170 NIL deals for Mocs men's and women's athletes, with each athlete earning $125 on average.
NIL was not designed as a recruiting tool for high school players, but it quickly became one.
"The conversations are starting earlier and earlier now," says Baylor School second-year football coach Erik Kimrey, who also dealt with NIL as South Carolina's tight ends coach during the 2021 season. "Every family is different, and it's a different value for different families. I've known kids who have turned down higher NIL deals to go to the school they want to go to, and there are also kids who are fishing for the highest deal, and you can't blame them, either.
"Now that it's common vernacular in college football, these conversations are happening earlier and earlier as colleges get more and more organized behind the scenes in how they do these kinds of deals."
Sankey has expressed concern on multiple occasions about today's 15- and 16-year-old athletes, who he said are "sorting through a fully unregulated marketplace and being approached by individuals who present themselves as something they may not be."
NIL's unbridled existence may remain unchanged this time next year, despite the coast-to-coast calls for guardrails. What isn't uncertain is the profound impact of NIL and how it didn't take long.
"It's the No. 1 key now in recruiting," Kimrey says. "And if you're a university and you don't think that way, then you're behind the eight-ball. I think Tennessee has done a really good job with it. A couple of years ago, they were sitting with a new coach and 40 guys had left the team and they were looking at NCAA violation allegations, but they've done such a good job in the NIL world that they've been able to build their roster back quickly to the point that they won 11 games last year.
"It's the key to college football right now. You can like it or not like it, but it's the reality."