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NIL is the biggest topic in college sports. But what exactly is it?

Keeping up with your favorite college sports team feels like a full-time job now.

Gone are the days of checking in before the season starts and moving on once it ends. Now, you find yourself monitoring the transfer portal and reading about which teams are offering your current players the most money to jump ship.

Fans who do follow teams closely know that the NCAA's name, image and likeness policy has changed everything in college sports. But what exactly is NIL?

Defining name, image and likeness

The NCAA first adopted its name, image and likeness policy in 2021 after multiple states passed legislation allowing college athletes to be paid for work involving (you guessed it) their name, image and likeness.

The point was for athletes to be compensated for work outside of athletic performance or participation, avoiding any pay-for-play situations.

How does it work?

How NIL works varies from school to school. Schools must follow guidelines set in place by state law, which means policies could differ.

For instance, Kentucky and Ohio's governors enacted executive orders leading up to the NCAA's policy. Indiana did not. Student-athletes in Indiana can still be compensated like those in Kentucky and Ohio, but they are not required to follow possible additional guidelines set by their state lawmakers.

Similarly, some states like Kentucky allow high school athletes to be compensated for their name, image and likeness. Indiana and Ohio do not and therefore their rules and regulations are different.

According to the NCAA's policy, subject to state law, student-athletes can make money in exchange for performed work outside of their athletic participation. This can include sponsored posts on social media, commercials for TV or in-person promotions.

Schools can work with professional service providers to set up a marketplace for NIL opportunities. For example, student-athletes at Cincinnati, Kentucky, Ohio State and Xavier can be found on Opendorse, a website that offers shout-outs, appearances or posts for a fee.

What's an NIL collective?

While Opendorse allows you to directly pay a student-athlete for a service, a collective like UC's Cincy Reigns raises money to help offer direct financial support to student-athletes for general NIL activities.

Collectives are not technically affiliated with the university, instead led by fans or alumni. These collectives raise money and help fans, donors and local businesses create opportunities for their favorite teams.

"These entities that are separate from the institution — even though a lot of them are walking in lock step with their school and with their fundraising initiatives at a school, they still are separate," said Braly Keller, the NIL and business insights manager at Opendorse.

UC alums Travis and Jason Kelce's recent event at Fifth Third Arena, the live taping of their podcast "New Heights," was a fundraising opportunity for Cincy Reigns. A portion of proceeds from ticket sales and Cincy Reigns' Cincy Light beer sales went directly to the collective.

At the University of Kentucky, members of UK's football NIL collective, The 15 Club, got to experience a private concert from Grammy Award-winning artist John Legend. The money from that went directly to supporting the football program.

How are NIL deals or collectives monitored?

The NCAA states that its national office will not monitor schools for violations of NIL policies, only investigating possible violations of pay-for-play, improper inducements or other policies.

"Schools are obligated to apply and report potential violations of NCAA legislation that remains applicable, including the prohibitions on pay for play and improper inducements," the NCAA states on its website.

While the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors has directed its council to develop plans for NIL protections, nothing has been finalized yet. College sports leaders have called for federal regulations, but those are not in place at this time either.

"It's crazy," Tremaine Dees, collegiate director for the full-service global sports management and marketing firm EZ Sports Group, said about what he's learned about the changing state of NIL. "I mean it's going to continue to change as well ... (there's) really no legislation on it right now, so it's kind of just open."

How has the lack of any federal regulations impacted schools?

Differing rules and regulations mean each school and state is responsible for itself. That could mean some schools are stricter than others.

"Obviously different states have different laws ... and different universities handle this stuff differently," said Brett Ryback, assistant to the head coach and director of player development for Kentucky's men's basketball. "Everybody looks at it so differently that you're almost constantly scrambling for reasons as to why this rule is in place or this rule is not in place."

Several federal bills have been introduced in Congress to address this issue since the policy was first enacted in 2021. Still, nothing has been passed at this time.

What happens next?

We've spoken to school administrators, collective leaders, current student-athletes and local prospects to get a better understanding of the state of NIL in college athletics and what people hope to see next.

In the coming weeks, we'll introduce you to them and their roles in this ever-changing world. We also plan to continue to report on any NCAA changes as well as local teams' moves.

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