Uneven Playing Field: F-1 College Athletes, NIL and the Need for Government Action
Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Hundreds of thousands of student athletes have made money from their name, image and likeness since the National Collegiate Athletic Association first allowed them to do so on July 1, 2021. While these deals have provided financial support for athletes at all levels of college sports, one group has been left out: student athletes from outside of the United States.

This is because most foreign student athletes are in the U.S. on F-1 student visas, which place strict limits on their ability to work. The federal government has not expressly said whether NIL activities, such as signing autographs, making appearances or posting on social media, constitute impermissible “work,” leading to inequities among not only athletes but also schools. Some schools take a cautious approach, while others promise foreign student athletes the chance to participate in NIL activities with little regard to potential visa violations. In order to best advocate for foreign student athletes and their schools, the BAL Sports & Entertainment and Government Strategies teams set up a series of virtual roundtables with NCAA Division I schools to learn more about their experiences and solicit their insights.

NIL Perspectives from NCAA Division I

The schools hailed from all parts of the country and represented several athletic conferences, including each of the NCAA’s Power Five conferences. And while they all brought a unique perspective, they stressed some of the same themes over and over again:

  • Schools want guidance.

    Across the board, schools said they want clear, precise guidance defining what NIL activities are permissible for F-1 foreign student athletes. More than any specific recommendation, schools were united on this point. They want clarity.

  • Students are vulnerable.

    Absent guidance, athletic departments are under tremendous pressure to find workarounds or loopholes to attract and retain foreign student athletes. Some schools have promised foreign student athletes guaranteed NIL participation, despite the lack of clear rules on whether such activities are permissible on F-1 visas. This exposes students to potential visa violations, which could permanently affect their ability to travel to the U.S. to work, study or live.

  • The playing field is uneven.

    The lack of immigration policy has led many schools to take a conservative approach, excluding foreign student athletes from NIL activities, including team-wide NIL deals. This creates inequities among not only players but also schools, some of which are less cautious. The exclusion of foreign student athletes from NIL activities complicates team and locker room dynamics, impacting team performance and morale.

  • NIL deals benefit the economy.

    Permitting foreign student athletes to engage in NIL activities supports economic growth in the U.S. While a handful of multimillion dollar endorsement deals steal the headlines, most happen at the state or local level, supporting jobs in university communities. These communities do not get the full benefit of NIL-related income when foreign student athletes are not allowed to participate. Rather, few U.S. businesses can partner with foreign student athletes, provided they leave the U.S. to conduct NIL activities abroad.

  • Foreign athletes are being denied the full student athlete experience.

    Participating in NIL activities plays an important part in the student athlete experience and the overall development of the student in their educational and cultural experience in the U.S. Though limited options may exist for some foreign student athletes to change their visa to cash in on their NIL, universities are hesitant to pursue these routes as these athletes are first and foremost students, not employees.

The Road Ahead

As we see with men’s and women’s college basketball, college sports is an increasingly international affair. As of 2022, there were more than 24,000 foreign student athletes in Division I, II and III sports. Foreign student athletes made up 12.8% of Division I athletes, including 15% of men’s college basketball players and 13% of women’s college basketball players. In both men’s and women’s Division I tennis, more than 60% came from outside of the U.S.

The inability of foreign student athletes to participate in NIL hinders the ability of U.S. schools to compete for the best international collegiate athletic talent. Foreign student athletes must be able to benefit from their NIL just as their U.S.-born teammates do. The need for government action is clear.

The patchwork of state NIL laws have prompted calls for federal NIL legislation more broadly, and at least one proposal would allow foreign student athletes to make money off their NIL without jeopardizing their F-1 status. Thus far, legislative efforts have fallen short, even with recent support from the most prominent collegiate athletic conferences.

In the absence of legislation, as we have previously argued, the Department of Homeland Security can and should publish clarifying policies on permissible NIL activities for F-1 student athletes. The Student and Exchange Visitor Program and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have both indicated they will provide guidance, but so far nothing has materialized.

 

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