In a lot of ways, May 6 didn’t bring much out of the ordinary for Eli Drinkwitz. The second-year Missouri football coach is used to entering someone else’s domain, flashing his charm, selling his vision for the Tiger football program.
But this time, the stakes were a bit higher. Instead of meeting the family of a high school football prospect and selling them on playing for Missouri, Drinkwitz found himself in Jefferson City, shaking hands with members of the state legislature in the Capitol.
Former Missouri offensive lineman and current Republican Rep. Kurtis Gregory introduced Drinkwitz on the House floor, then he made the rounds, meeting dozens of lawmakers from both chambers. Drinkwitz’s mission: sell the legislature on the merits of a bill allowing college athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses.
Republican Rep. Nick Schroer said Drinkwitz’s presence turned heads. After all, it’s not every day that a football coach wanders into the Capitol. He believes Drinkwitz played a major role in the passage of an NIL bill that, if signed by Gov. Mike Parson, would go into effect Aug. 28 and add Missouri to the growing list of states that have enacted NIL laws.
“I’ve never seen another coach up in the Capitol from any school other than presenting an award for winning state championships or winning a national championship,” Schroer said. “I think it was incredible that he got out of his element, came onto somebody else’s home turf, and basically brought home a win for the kids at Mizzou.”
To understand why Drinkwitz cares enough about NIL to lobby for it to be codified in state law, you have to know a bit about the ever-evolving national NIL landscape. Name, image and likeness compensation has been a source of conflict in college athletics for years, with the most prominent clash coming when former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA for the use of his rights in the NCAA basketball video game in 2009. When California passed the Fair Pay to Play Act in 2019, which will allow college athletes in the state to sign endorsement deals, profit from their social media accounts and more, it became inevitable that the NCAA would have to compromise its model of amateurism.
The NCAA board of governors responded to California’s law, which won’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2023, by announcing in October 2019 that it would modernize its rules surrounding NIL. A target implementation date of January 2021 was set. That has, of course, come and gone, and the NCAA has still not passed or proposed any NIL legislation. In the meantime, the inaction from Indianapolis has prompted other state governments to follow California’s lead and take matters into their own hands.
Currently, 16 states have signed NIL legislation into law. Student-athletes in six of those states will be legally allowed to receive money for their stardom without jeopardizing athletic scholarships as soon as July 1. If the NCAA does not pass a measure before then allowing student-athletes nationwide to profit from NIL, schools in those six states (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and New Mexico) would, obviously, have a significant recruiting advantage.
The NCAA announced last week that the Division I Council is expected to rule on NIL during its June 23 meeting “if feasible,” but due to the association’s lack of action over the past 18 months, there’s healthy skepticism about whether a nationwide measure will actually be passed. Missouri athletics director Jim Sterk noted that the NCAA would like to wait until the Supreme Court issues a ruling on the NCAA v. Alston appeal before acting on NIL, and a decision there might not come until the end of June. Plus, even if the NCAA does pass something, state laws would supersede the NCAA rule, which will likely be more restrictive.
As a result, at this point, the only way to get a truly level playing field across the country would be for Congress to pass a federal NIL law. While Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated reported last week that Congress is “closer than ever before” to passing such a law, it’s far from a given anything will materialize this summer.
“The NCAA had their turn, and now it’s an opportunity for us to kind of set the curve,” Drinkwitz said last week. “I love the SEC because we’re always on the forefront of everything we do, and so the rest of the SEC is kind of out there, so it’s time for Mizzou to get out there, too, and use it to our advantage.”
Keeping up with the rest of the conference in recruiting isn’t the only reason Schroer, Republican Sen. Caleb Rowden and Democratic Sen. Wes Rogers and Greg Razer have worked together to sponsor various NIL bills in Missouri. But it would be naive to pretend that’s not a major motivator. Of the 11 states that host an SEC school, seven have signed an NIL bill into law, while three (including Missouri) have passed such a measure in at least one chamber of the state legislature. Kentucky is the only SEC state that hasn’t passed an NIL bill, but it is expected to do so during an upcoming special legislative session. Republican Rep. Dean Van Schoiak told the Columbia Missourian that, during his conversation with Drinkwitz on May 6, Drinkwitz said at least two recruits were deciding between Missouri and Alabama, and without an NIL law, the Tigers would be at a disadvantage. Schroer noted that when the Missouri football team is competitive and able to draw sellout crowds to Columbia, the state’s economy benefits.
But Schroer and Gregory also see NIL as, in Schroer’s words, a way for student-athletes to pursue the American dream. Both claim they saw firsthand the disparity between how athletes and other college students can earn money.
Schroer played one season of football at Central Methodist University before an injury curtailed his career. He then received an acting scholarship and noted that some of the ways he saw acting students make money, such as teaching lessons outside of school or appearing in commercials, would make a football player ineligible. Gregory, who played at Missouri from 2005-2009, recalls seeing teammates struggle to make ends meet and views NIL as a way to help current student-athletes avoid those hardships.
“I had teammates that slept on a couch for four years after they got out of the dorm so they could send their scholarship check money back home to their families to be able to help out their family back home,” Gregory said. “… Didn’t realize it until senior day, we had some guys, their folks never got to come watch them play because they couldn’t afford to travel.
“I think doing this, maybe some parents of players are going to get to come watch a few more games. Doing this, they might be able to earn some extra money to help support their family back home.”
Drinkwitz’s Capitol visit was never intended to coincide with the House vote on NIL. But once he arrived, Schroer said, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
Two days prior, Razer had added an NIL amendment to an existing House education bill. On the day Drinkwitz visited, Schroer, who first sponsored an NIL bill about two years ago, attached similar language to a higher education reform bill. The House approved the bill by an overwhelming majority, 123-24.
“It wasn’t necessarily planned,” Schroer said. “We didn’t hold off on debating the bill that we put it on. I just saw a great opportunity.”
Drinkwitz downplayed his role in the bill’s passing, but both Schroer and Gregory said his presence was a major reason it gained bi-partisan support. During arguments over the bill, the primary concern came from those who believed athletic scholarships at Missouri were funded by taxpayers. Republican Speaker of the House Rob Vescovo was among those who expressed discomfort with allowing student-athletes who, he thought, were already benefiting from public funds to make additional money. Schroer admitted the opposition of the Speaker made him nervous about the bill’s passing.
But the tide turned when Gregory informed the House that Missouri’s scholarships were funded not by taxes but through private donations to the Tiger Scholarship Fund. Having Drinkwitz on hand helped drive that point home.
“Coach Drinkwitz actually made the time to try and educate the speaker as to why he believed that he was wrong when it came to the issues that he brought up, and ultimately he pulled a couple people off the floor and just educated them the same way,” Schroer said. “… He was massively important in ushering in a win for us.”
The concern expressed by Vescovo is one of several that have been articulated by NIL skeptics and opponents. Even some within the Missouri athletics department are worried about the unintended consequences of NIL compensation. Basketball coach Cuonzo Martin called NIL “wonderful,” but he also wondered aloud about the challenges of coaching a locker room in which one star player could sign a six-figure endorsement deal while others make little to no money. Sterk said he hopes NIL won’t impact the ability of athletics departments to fund non-revenue sports for the benefit of the few athletes who stand to cash in.
Drinkwitz, however, isn’t deterred by the uncharted territory ahead.
“It’s absolutely scary. It’s the unknown,” Drinkwitz said. “But that’s where the magic happens, right? I mean, it was scary to go into space and land on the moon, and now we’re trying to get to Mars. So it’s part of the process, and it’s part of what college sports is going to become.”
On March 14, the final day of Missouri’s legislative session, a similar NIL provision to the one that was voted on during Drinkwitz’s visit to the Capitol passed in both the House and the Senate. If Parson signs the bill and no other states implement a new law, Missouri would be one of just seven states allowing student-athletes to profit off NIL before the start of the 2021 football season. In another parallel to his recruiting habits, Drinkwitz took to Twitter to celebrate, tweeting “Great job by our legislation! And a great day for our student-athletes.”
If passed, Missouri’s law would be among the least restrictive nationally in terms of how student-athletes can make money. Unlike most other state laws, Missouri’s does not include a provision that any payments to student-athletes must be “commensurate with their market value,” nor does it prohibit prospective student-athletes from entering into NIL deals. It would also allow athletes to hire properly licensed agents.
Like every other state, Missouri’s bill prohibits universities from paying student-athletes directly or from negotiating endorsement deals for athletes. Athletes are also prohibited from entering into contracts that conflict with pre-existing athletics department deals, but only during team activities. For instance, Schroer explained, since Missouri has an apparel contract with Nike, athletes would be required to wear Nike gear during practices and competition but could sign an individual endorsement deal with, say, Under Armour and appear in Under Armour commercials or advertise Under Armour products on social media.
“It was important for us to just say, look, as long as there’s no conflict — you’re not going to be able to enter into a contract that will conflict with the type of apparel during team activities, so whether it’s practices, press conferences, on-field stuff, abide by the contracts that Mizzou has entered into with whatever entity it is,” Schroer said. “Outside of that, you can do whatever the heck you want, be as free as you want to be. If you want to get a sponsorship with Gatorade, Coca-Cola, Pepsi or just do something on your own on YouTube, so be it.”
Long before Drinkwitz’s visit to the Capitol, Mizzou started preparing for NIL to arrive. The department hired OpenDorse last fall to create a program called TradeMark, the goal of which will be helping student-athletes build their personal brands. OpenDorse will also serve as a middle-man of sorts, facilitating student-athletes finding endorsement deals and companies finding sponsors.
The groundwork has been laid for Missouri’s student-athletes to benefit financially from NIL, and for Drinkwitz to benefit on the recruiting trail. Normally, at this point In the recruiting process, it would be up to Drinnkwitz to seal the deal. This time, he’s at the mercy of Parson. But he expressed optimism that the NIL provisions he helped pass through the legislature will soon become law.
“I have confidence Governor 57 is going to get it done for us,” he said with a smile.