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Murray State Athletics Begin Navigating "New Era" With NIL Rules

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David Eaton
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Murray State Athletics
The Murray State Women's Volleyball team in March 2021.

With Kentucky college athletes now able to profit off of their name, image and likeness, some Kentucky universities are launching brand development programs to help student-athletes promote themselves and capitalize on business opportunities.

Eastern Kentucky University and Western Kentucky University were among the many university athletic programs across the country this week to launch these brand development programs in collaboration with third-party companies, a trend some major university athletic programs have already jumped on months before.

Murray State University Athletics Director Kevin Saal said in an interview Thursday, he considers the new name, image and likeness rules to be a “new era” of college athletics, akin to the passage of Title IX in 1972 that established the legal framework for gender equity in college sports.

“It’s a significant shift for us in athletics,” Saal said. “I view this as really taking the first step on a journey that will have some twists and turns in it as we move forward in the weeks and months ahead.”

Murray State hasn’t announced a stand-alone brand development program for its athletes yet. Saal said the athletics program already incorporates brand development and stewardship as a part of an existing 16-week training program for student athletes. Saal also said a decision could be made in the coming days whether a partnership with a brand development company is pursued as an individual school or as a part of a larger deal with the conference Murray State is a member of.

Kyle Schwartz, Assistant Commissioner for Strategic Communications for the Ohio Valley Conference, said the OVC has been meeting with brand development companies about a potential conference-wide deal for all 11 member schools across four states, including Murray State. Yet Schwartz also said individual deals with OVC schools may be more likely at this point.

Both Saal and Schwartz expressed a desire for federal legislation creating clear NIL regulations across the country. From Saal’s perspective, some universities may have a competitive advantage depending on what state law exists about NIL. Regardless, Saal sees regulatory uncertainty in the near future.

“Whenever you anticipate or forecast change, it's certainly hard to be resolute in your direction, whether that's as a young person in this new venture or as an organization. Saal said. “So, we're going to work through it gently together.”

The NCAA in new interim guidance Wednesday stated student-athletes should follow existing state law on NIL, but athletes also wouldn’t be in violation of NCAA rules by profiting off of their name, image and likeness.

An executive order signed by Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear in late June allowed for athletes to profit off of NIL, joining at least 20 other states that have made similar moves to legalize NIL through legislation or otherwise.

New Opportunities, With Limits

Saal also expanded on the potential opportunities Murray State student-athletes may have with the new NIL rules. He said along with athletes profiting off of endorsement deals, athletes can also theoretically make profits from their skills off the court or field, such as through music or art.

“We may have a volleyball student athlete that is a very skilled piano player, and as a skilled piano player, she's got an opportunity to go on Friday and Saturday nights to play external events...and be compensated for that,” Saal said. “You can look at it as opportunities that come as a direct result of their participation and recognizability as an athlete, and then you can look at it as opportunities that come about in a skill set that may not be related to the athletics component.”

Saal said with the opportunity that NIL deals provide, there are still some restrictions: NIL deals can’t be used to persuade potential recruits to come to a particular school as a “quid pro quo,” and that “institutional staff members” including administrators, coaches and staff can’t be involved in arranging these potential deals.

According to Beshear’s executive order, student-athletes are allowed to hire agents specifically for the purpose of arranging NIL deals but for professional contracts, aligning with federal law. The order also states Kentucky universities including Murray State can create “reasonable” limitations or rules regarding the timeframes when student-athletes can seek NIL deals, and create rules regarding NIL deals that a university may consider “detrimental” to its mission, such as deals promoting or advertising alcohol, tobacco products, firearms, or “sexually-oriented” activities.

“There'll be some institutionally specific things in terms of facility use and how you manage [NIL] activities in and around practices, and competitions and those sort of things,” Saal said. “We've developed that individually here at Murray State, obviously with a lot of folks’ input on campus.”

Saal said he’s generally heard some questions and curiosity from athletes about how the university plans to move forward with NIL rules, and he expects the conversations to “crescendo” into the fall semester.