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NIL deals often not available to foreign-born student-athletes in NCAA

Few mid-major programs in the country have embraced the name, image and likeness arena as much as the College of Charleston.

The school has partnered with G3, a Cincinnati-based marketing firm, that has helped the university’s athletic program with its NIL brand.

In the past year, Cougars head basketball coach Pat Kelsey has been a fund-raising dynamo, raising more than $1 million for the program.

Several players, including Ryan Larson, Dalton Bolon and Ben Burnham, have been able to cash in on NIL deals with local businesses.

But international players such as Ante Brzovic, who is from Croatia, and Reyne Smith, from Australia — starters on the Cougars’ 31-4 NCAA Tournament team — have been left out of the NIL marketplace.

While international students are allowed to work in part-time on-campus positions, such as those in the campus bookstore or dining halls, they, unlike their U.S.-born teammates, are unable to earn a profit from their NIL by appearing at events like autograph signings.

More than 20,000 international NCAA athletes are being locked out of the multi-million-dollar NIL industry due to restrictive U.S. visa laws — brands can’t sign them, and NIL collectives can’t offer them the same deals as they do American citizens.

International students are being left out of the NIL job market because of the F-1 Student visas they obtain to go to school in the U.S.

“The student visa doesn’t allow guys like me to get some of the NIL deals other guys have gotten,” Smith said. “The school has been on top of the NIL stuff from the beginning. They met with us as a team, so I knew early on that I wasn’t going to be able to get some of the NIL stuff like Dalton and Ben were going to be able to get.”

In July 2021, the NCAA adopted a new policy that allowed athletes the opportunity to benefit from their name, image and likeness.

The new policy allows college athletes, recruits and their families to:

  • Engage in NIL activities that are consistent with the law of the state where the school is located.

  • Engage in this type of activity without violating NCAA rules related to NIL if the student attends a school in a state without an NIL law

  • Use a professional services provider for NIL activities.

While the NCAA hasn’t compiled exact numbers, the association believes that 75 percent of college athletes have interacted in some level of NIL activity since July 2021, per Opendorse, which helps facilitate NIL deals.

According to Opendorse, the average NCAA Division I athlete received $3,700 through NIL opportunities in the first year, while some big-name players scored high six-figure deals.

While rule changes have allowed U.S.-born athletes to make money through NIL deals, questions about how to give international athletes the same capabilities remain unresolved two full seasons later.

Legal experts say a lack of clear expectations for how the Dept. of Homeland Security will view these deals, and what impact that could have on the immigration status of players, makes the NIL marketplace riskier for international athletes than it needs to be.

In the past year, both Smith and Brzovic have been approached by local businesses about sponsorships and potential NIL deals, only to have to tell them they are unable to participate because of government restrictions.

“It’s tough to turn down the money, but we have to follow the rules,” Brzovic said. “Hopefully, they will change the rules, so we are able to get paid as well.”

Smith and Brozovic, however, like many international athletes have found a workaround — traveling home or elsewhere abroad to engage in NIL activities. Smith worked at a basketball camp in the Bahamas after the season was over, while Brozovic was able to do social-media work while home in Croatia.

“As long as they are out of the U.S. and are getting paid, while they are not on U.S. soil, they can do NIL deals,” said College of Charleston athletic director Matt Roberts. “It’s not ideal, it’s not perfect, but that’s how we try and give guys like Ante and Reyne the same opportunities the other U.S.-born student-athletes are getting.”

In March, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy from Connecticut published a letter to the Dept. of Homeland Security asking for the government branch that oversees immigration to provide some clarity, and potentially some new rules, to help international athletes.

“If that happens, that would be great,” Smith said. “It’s not like we’re making a ton of money, but every little bit does help.”

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