Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman expects NIL chaos: 'The word messy has been used'

After years of dismissing the prospect of college athletes monetizing their own image and likeness, the NCAA changed lanes 13 months ago.

A proposal by the association’s legislation working group seemed offer the framework for a structure that would allow athletes to retain their eligibility while making money off their name on anything from endorsements to social media posts and video games. The proposal was met with a range of reactions — U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy deemed it “one step forward, one step back” — but the plan was considered a move toward change from a body that has resisted change.

Yet as a handful of states prepare to roll out name, image, and likeness laws on July 1, the NCAA is stalled. The NCAA failed to vote on the proposed legislation in January after the Department of Justice sent a letter to the organization with a warning of possible antitrust issues.

So the NCAA’s guidelines sit while the federal government shows no signs of passing legislation to supersede the pending state laws that go live in six weeks.

What to expect? Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman, a co-chair of the committee that drafted the NCAA guidelines, has an idea of what we’ll see.

“The word messy has been used a lot in conversations I’ve been part of in the last few weeks and I think that’s probably an accurate description of what this is going look like,” Ackerman said,

Another word Ackerman and others in the college sports industry have used: chaos.

On July 1, athletes in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and New Mexico will have the ability to make money any number of ways, including selling autographs and merchandise, offering lessons or endorsing products on social media. Arizona will have a law in place July 23, nine states will flip the NIL switch over the next few years, and a dozen other states have legislation in the pipeline.

But consider Connecticut, with no legislation in sight. Until there are uniform sets of national guidelines, athletes at Connecticut colleges will live under a different set of rules.

To Ackerman, the terrain will be untenable.

“In my judgment, if these states are all going live on July 1, what we probably need is for the NCAA to vote quickly on the framework that would allow athletes in all the other states to have the same opportunity,” Ackerman said. “It sounds like there’s a possibility, not a probability, but a possibility, that Congress could come up with a federal bill or law by then. But even if they do, there’s still a lot of details about how this gets implemented that need to be filled in by the NCAA and, again, we have that framework.”

Ackerman co-chaired the working committee with Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. She said the group was focused on providing a framework from which the NCAA could implement the initial set of NIL guidelines that will undoubtedly evolve.

There was support for the plan, but the antitrust issue steered the NCAA away from a vote. Ackerman said the NCAA could act quickly.

“By July 1 it is, it is go time,” she said. “Our schools are going to have to be ready in some form or fashion to adapt very quickly to this new environment, and that’s going to mean everyone from our ADs to our compliance personnel to coaches, so they know what can be said and not said as it relates to recruiting.”

Recruiting, Ackerman said, is a concern she hears discussed throughout the industry.

“It’s unclear right now, the impact of NIL on recruiting,” Ackerman said. “It’s also going to become an issue likely in transfers, which are opening up …. It’s just a bit of an unknown here. But that said, there’s an understanding it’s going to happen and we’re just going to have to get started somewhere and do our best and be prepared to adjust as this system develops in time.”

The plan proposed by the group chaired by Ackerman and Smith stipulated that schools, boosters and conferences play no role in NIL activity and procurement. The plan also recommended compensation represent payment for NIL and not be a form of payment for participation, and that NIL activity be regulated.

“There’s a difference between permissible assistance (by a school), which is largely going to take the form of education, and impermissible facilitation of schools which under the NCAA’s framework would not be allowed to broker the deals,” Ackerman said. “Schools have got to keep an arm’s length from that because of concerns about pay for play and inducements, not wanting these arrangements to look like recruiting inducements. So that’s a bit of a gray area, conceptually.”

There were NCAA “guardrails” recommended, but how rules will be regulated and enforced seems unclear. In fact, the report urges congressional assistance — something that NCAA President Mark Emmert has also sought.

But with multiple pieces of legislation proposed — including bills from both Murphy and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal — there is no singular, bipartisan path.

“Some (bills) are sort of NIL-focused and kind of leave it at that, but there are others that are more expansive — including some from the senators in Connecticut that have been more active,” Ackerman said. “So if Congress intervenes, what is the form of intervention? … Who’s managing the pieces of it are going to become clearer. So that means the role of the NCAA office in (Indianapolis), what conference offices have to deal with, what our institutions — what schools like UConn have to deal with locally. These are all questions.”

Hence the chaos.

“This is going to evolve,” Ackerman said.”Where we start won’t be where we finish. I expect that whatever we go out with for the coming academic year will iterate over time. We just have to find that framework … soon.”

paul.doyle@hearstmediact.com