Could Ohio be the next state to legalize college athletes profiting from name, image and likeness?

Jessie Balmert
Cincinnati Enquirer
If the NCAA passes legislation to allow college athletes to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness, athletes such as Ohio State lacrosse player Mitchell Pehlke could be paid to promote products on his YouTube channel or TikTok account. “There’s definitely different ways I can make money in that space,” he said.

COLUMBUS – Ohio could be the next state to allow collegiate athletes to make money off their name, image and likeness – after lagging behind most of the country.

Under a new bill, college athletes could make money off the use of their name, image and likeness, enter contracts and hire representation.  

There would be some limitations: Athletes would need to inform their universities 15 days before entering into a contract and could not endorse marijuana, alcohol, tobacco, adult entertainment or casinos.

All collegiate athletes would be eligible – not just Division I athletes at places like Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati – and some prospective students, such as commits shortly before they enroll, Antani said. Universities would police their own athletes without statewide oversight. 

The changes would take effect on July 1, 2021 if approved by the Ohio Legislature. But there's a tight window for state lawmakers to do so while working to finish a two-year state budget.  

"We will get this done. We will get this done to the benefit of the student-athletes in Ohio," state Sen. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, said at a Monday news conference. He was joined by Ohio State University Athletic Director Gene Smith, who co-led a working group that developed rules on how schools could implement name, image and likeness.

Antani said his time as an Ohio State student, when he noticed how hard student-athletes worked in school and in their sport, prompted him to advocate for the issue.

"This has always been urgent for me," he said. "But now there’s definitely a movement occurring across the country with this." 

Ohio has lagged behind other states when it comes to name, image and likeness legislation. To date, 16 states have enacted laws that allow college students to make money through advertisements, sponsorship deals and other promotions based on their sports success and popularity. Five of those laws – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and New Mexico – take effect July 1.

That presents a fairness problem for the NCAA, which regulates student athletics. Should Alabama's quarterback be able to sign a Nike deal when Ohio State's cannot? 

A patchwork of laws

Complicating matters further, each state has different rules on how students can make money from their own fame, whether universities can reject contracts and how athletes hire agents. 

Worried about a patchwork of laws, the NCAA has asked Congress to pass legislation on name, image and likeness. Former Ohio State University wide receiver and current U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Rocky River, was one of the legislators leading the charge. But so far nothing has passed, and proponents aren't optimistic about legislation taking effect before July 1. 

More: Opportunities await Olympic sport athletes with proposed NCAA name, image and likeness rules

More: What is the status of name, image and likeness legislation for Ohio college athletes?

Meanwhile, the NCAA Division I Council, which oversees the highest level of college athletics, delayed a January vote on rules allowing athletes to make money. The delay came after a warning from the Department of Justice that the new rules could violate antitrust laws. 

Facing a July 1 deadline from several states and little help from Congress to date, the NCAA is expected to vote on name, image and likeness rules during its June 22-23 meeting.   

'We’re very supportive of the concept'

“We’re very supportive of the concept," said University of Cincinnati Director of Athletics John Cunningham. "It’s something that we need to get done within college athletics. It’s just a matter of how you do it and what are the safeguards, the guardrails that are in place."

Cunningham praised Gonzalez's approach and said he would review Antani's proposal.

Xavier University supports name, image and likeness rights but is also pushing for a federal solution, Greg Christopher, the school’s Vice President and Director of Athletics, told the Cincinnati Enquirer on Monday.

"Any other student would have the opportunity to earn income off their name, image or likeness," Christopher said. "There have been conversations over the last few months with state and federal legislators. It’s been a collaborative effort and I’m glad the state has been active in this. But a patchwork of 50 different states isn’t workable. At some point, there needs to be federal legislation to oversee this."

Smith touted the benefits for Ohio State University athletes in the central Ohio market, where Buckeye football and basketball attract attention. 

"There will be a number of student-athletes where this will change their families' lives and the pressure of trying to pay the bills of higher education. I can't stress that enough," Smith said. “To me, it’s disappointing that we weren't there earlier, but we’re here." 

Athletes advocate for compensation

Money has long been the dividing line between amateur and professional athletes. But in recent years, those athletes have advocated for being able to profit from their own work and success, especially as universities and television networks rake in cash from their endeavors. (Ohio State University’s athletic department brought in a school record of nearly $234 million between July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2020.)

For example, Opendorse, a digital marketing platform for athletes, estimated that former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields could have earned more than $1 million a year off of his name, image and likeness. But the changes could help lesser-known athletes with savvy social media presences, too.

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has advocated for compensating players. He could have made as much as $700,000 off his success as the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner and leader of the national championship-winning Louisiana State University, according to one estimate. 

Amid that backdrop, Antani is proposing a law to legalize ways for students to profit off their own fame in Ohio. Any changes would need approval from both chambers of the Ohio Legislature and Gov. Mike DeWine's signature. It's unlikely that all happens before other states' laws take effect in July.

Reporters Adam Baum, Keith Jenkins, Joey Kaufman and USA Today Sports contributed to this article.