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IOWA CITY — On July 1, several members of the Iowa football team shared a post by YOKE Gaming on their Instagram stories, which claimed that it would pay all college athletes for sharing its post.
The app, which says it “enables you to play video games with your favorite athletes,” is one of many private companies that seeks to aid athletes in profiting off of their name, image and likeness by providing fans the opportunity to connect with their favorite athletes for a price.
It’s also one of the companies Dan Lust, a sports attorney and professor at New York Law School who appears regularly on ESPN, CBS and FOX Sports, says sparks immediate concern about athletes partnering with brands too quickly. Unlike partnering with a local business or a publicly traded company like Apple or Google, athletes may be navigating murky waters.
“I would be a little less trustworthy of these non-publicly traded behemoths that you're signing their terms and conditions,” Lust said over the phone on Thursday. “We have no idea what's in them. You’re dealing with a company that is off the grid, not enforced by the Securities and Exchange Commission, I would read every word, every comma, every period of any type of deal.”
Iowa junior wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. joined the platform, and announced it on Twitter.
But the problem with YOKE gaming, according to Darren Heitner, a University of Florida professor in sports law and practicing sports, entertainment and IP lawyer, is that athletes might be paying a steeper price for affiliating with the new company.
Heitner shared a post by NIL Network, which is “a platform that delivers valuable content, guidance, and resources, to athletes, coaches, and administrators to guide NIL-related decisions in the new market surrounding collegiate athletes’ ability to monetize their Name, Image, and Likeness.”
The screenshot is from the user terms and conditions of the YOKE Gaming website. According to Adam Arnaout, an attorney with Arnaout Athletics & Entertainment and former football player for the University of Miami who initially looked into the app with an athlete client, YOKE Gaming doesn’t provide individual contracts with athletes.
“My understanding is that YOKE offered a whole variety of athletes roughly $20 in exchange for some sort of endorsement,” Heitner said over the phone on Wednesday. “The big thing that stuck out to me when I saw this post on YOKE was extensive rights that the athletes were providing. And not only the extent of those rights but that they were perpetual royalty free and irrevocable. For an athlete, not to be able to revoke that right at any point for the rest of that athlete's life or career, it's a concern, especially if the compensation is around $20.”
But more notably, over 100,000 athletes across the country have signed up to become “Barstool Athletes.”
According to a Twitter post by Dave Portnoy, CEO of Barstool Sports, he launched its “Barstool Athletes Inc,” campaign after Jackson State volleyball player Adelaide Halverson sent him a direct message asking how she could become a Barstool athlete on July 1.
Portnoy didn’t know what that meant, so she suggested he send Barstool merchandise. To that, Portnoy decided to create college athlete-specific “Barstool Athlete” merchandise not sold to the general public that he’ll send to any athlete who applies to become a part of it. Now, Portnoy’s Barstool Inc. is overwhelmed with applications, tweeting out their sponsorships which extend across the country.
One of those notably includes Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee.
Iowa eammate Jaydin Eierman also recently joined. Other recent Iowa Barstool athletes include: football’s Taylor Fox and Henry Marchese, track and field athletes Tyler Lienau and Jordan Johnson and basketball’s Connor McCaffery.
It’s easy to become a Barstool Athlete. College athletes fill out an online application and they’ll eventually be announced by @StoolAthletics on Twitter. When Halverson announced her partnership, her following exploded overnight, and now the marketing senior is being contacted about multiple partnerships.
The problem, Lust said, is that Barstool Sports could get athletes in trouble. That’s because many schools or states do not allow athletes to partner with alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and gambling companies. Penn National, a company that owns and operates casinos and hotels across the country, has a 36-percent stake in Barstool Sports, which also has its own sportsbook.
The state of Ohio, for example, where Gov. Mike DeWine signed an executive order on June 28 to allow athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness starting on July 1, specifically restricts athletes from partnering with alcohol, marijuana, tobacco or gambling companies or with a brand in conflict with their university’s contracts.
Despite this rule, several Ohio State football, basketball, wrestling, track and field, lacrosse, field hockey, swimming and hockey athletes are Barstool Athletes. According to ESPN, there are still 20 states that haven’t passed a bill to legalize sports betting.
“I think it's a very big risk for a company that's maybe offering merchandise, and you know a couple extra followers,” Lust said. “I had people in my replies that were telling me, well, if 100,000 student athletes are trying to sign up with just one company, there's no way the NCAA would possibly remove their eligibility because that would be stripping their entire talent pool of assets.”
The NCAA, in a rush to pass legislation, took a hands-off policy when it came to providing restrictions, leaving that entirely on the shoulders of state-specific legislation or the schools’ compliance departments. That means the NCAA wouldn’t be punishing athletes if Barstool sponsorship is in conflict with state or school legislation.
“The schools would have to create some sort of guidance, saying Barstool is a gambling company, so if you signed a deal with them, you might be punished,” Lust said.
The state of Iowa never passed its own laws on NIL, which left the responsibility of handling it on the schools’ shoulders. The University of Iowa partnered with INFLCR to help athletes secure sponsors that are compliant with the university.
“Athletes don’t have to seek permission to use their name, image and likeness, it’s just a disclosure, so they just have to notify us of that opportunity,” Iowa associate director of athletics compliance Lyla Clerry said. “We tried to give them the tools and various opportunities of things to look out for. But since it is their own personal name, image likeness, now all of that ownership plays on them specifically and not the institution.”
According to the Iowa FLIGHT program rules document The Gazette received from the UI compliance office, there are no explicitly stated restrictions for athletes partnering with alcohol, cannabis, tobacco or gambling companies.
Policies that aren’t yet written
Lust cautions blanketed statements about NIL, since no state or school has the exact same policies as the other and there are still many unknowns.
“If you're an athlete in Iowa pay attention to Iowa, listen to what your compliance officials say in the school,” Lust said. “If anyone's getting broad brush strokes, not tying something to a particular school or to a particular state, I wouldn't listen to that.”
In addition, Michelle Meyer, a former collegiate volleyball player at UC Santa Barbara and beach volleyball coach at the University of Hawaii, founded NIL Network, whose post Heitner shared on YOKE Gaming, seeks to provide content to combat misinformation on the internet while also serve as a third-party consulting resource with workshops for smaller D-II or D-III schools whose budgets were slashed by the pandemic to help their athletes.
She launched the company in December 2020 and has employed two law students at Marquette University as researchers in addition to a former volleyball athlete with a masters in marketing.
“With everything that went on with COVID, I felt like NIL really got swept under the rug,” Meyer said. "This massive change was coming and nobody's really paying attention to it. I started Googling around and there was no content hub for NIL. I founded NIL Network as a passion project to try to spread awareness and try to bring clarity.“
Meyer said she thinks it will take up to five years for there to be clarity and understanding of the NIL space, but she sees her platform as another resource for athletes, coaches and players.
The challenge ultimately boils down to the definition of an amateur, which is now foggy in the era of NIL and can be different in sports like golf or in situations with international students.
In a report by NBC, the United States Golf Association initially said on July 1 that college golfers would have to wait to sign NIL deals until January 2022, when it would waive its current rules on retaining amateur status. On July 6, the USGA announced it will start the process of waiving restrictions on name, image and likeness in the Rules of Amateur Status and provide interim guidance.
In addition, a report by ESPN says international athletes on F-1 student visas prevents them from earning “substantial income.”
Lust said Nebraska sophomore offensive lineman Nouredin Nouili is from Germany and recently had to turn down multiple endorsement opportunities after learning it could interfere with his visa status.
Iowa has 17 international athletes across its women’s teams, including notable Big Ten field hockey player of the year Anthe Nijiziel. Excluding men’s tennis, gymnastics and swimming and diving, which were cut after this season, eight international athletes are competing on its men’s teams in the 2021-22 season, including Australian Big Ten Punter of the Year, Tory Taylor. Six of the nine members of the men’s golf team are from outside of the U.S.
“At the school level, you can't change an international student visa, the states that the schools are in, they can't do it either,” Lust said. “That would have to come from the federal government. Even the NCAA couldn't do that. People I’ve spoken to say it has to come from the federal level and maybe in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security.”
Heitner said he doesn’t want athletes to feel the need to hire lawyers, especially if their NIL deals aren’t lucrative enough to be worth the price, which is why he and other lawyers like Lust are using social media to combat misinformation or concerns about NIL.
“If there is a complexity to the extent that the athlete does not understand the agreement and does not feel comfortable retaining a lawyer, perhaps it's best for the athletes to just pass on it,” Heitner said. “There will be more offers to come.”
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