What the New Name, Image, and Likeness Laws Mean for International Student Athletes

By: Kayla Bokzam September 17, 2021

Recently, states have begun passing laws allowing college athletes to profit off of the use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL) rights. This wave of state legislation has pressured the National Collegiate Athletic Association to update their own policies regarding NIL, aligning their policies with state legislation.

While this is great news for American student athletes, it raises some questions for international student athletes playing college sports in the United States on student visas. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, students on F-1 visas can only work twenty hours per week while school is in session. In fact, the twenty-hour work limit for those on student visas is not exclusive to American law. Many countries, including England and Canada, impose the same restriction on international students. Additionally, during their first year, international students can only work on campus, and after that, any off-campus employment must pertain to their major area of study. Any money made from licensing NIL rights likely would not meet these criteria. 

In order to ensure all college athletes in the United States can benefit from the new NIL laws, the United States could alter its visa laws or include provisions in forthcoming NIL legislation stating that profiting off of NIL rights would not count towards the twenty-hour work week limit imposed by U.S. visa laws.

Another possibility is athletes turning in their student visas for employment visas but, as noted by David M. Hale and Dan Murphy of ESPN, the NCAA has worked hard to maintain the idea that their athletes are amateurs, so allowing international students to essentially be classified as employees wouldn’t make much sense. Senate Democrats proposed a bill called the College Athlete Right to Organize Act, which would classify college athletes as employees of their schools if they earn any form of compensation, allowing them to unionize. In response to the proposed bill, the NCAA reaffirmed the fact that their athletes are students, not employees, and noted that calling them otherwise would “undercut the purpose of college: earning a degree.”

And while only 2% of NCAA athletes go on to play professional sports, the NCAA’s statement clearly ignores the fact that these students make millions of dollars for their schools and, in exchange, are paid to keep the business of college sports running, which sounds a lot like an employee. Changing the status of college athletes from students to employees would easily circumvent any work limits currently imposed on international student athletes and provide them with great earning potential from licensing their NIL rights. 

Ensuring international athletes in America on student visas have equal opportunity to use NIL laws to their advantage could attract more international talent to the states. It would also give those who may not have the opportunity to play professionally post-graduation a chance to make the most out of playing collegiate sports. After all, it would be unfair for international student athletes providing the same product to be cheated out of this potentially life-changing opportunity by visa laws.

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