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NIL & Visas: International Student-Athletes and the Risk of the Deal

Name, Image, and Likeness (“NIL”) deals have paved the way for student-athletes to earn money and build their brands like never before. The past year has illustrated just how important it is for student-athletes to have access to the financial opportunities that NIL deals provide. Student-athletes that bring in millions of dollars for their university are not only experiencing substantial personal development but also creating a foundation for generational wealth. However, there remains a substantial group of student-athletes who have been overlooked in all the buzz about NIL compensation — international student-athletes.

According to the 2021 NCAA International Student-Athlete Inclusion Think Tank, more than 20,000 international student-athletes are currently competing at NCAA member schools. Many of these athletes are attending these schools on F-1 student visas. This student visa prevents international students attending a U.S. university from working off-campus during their first academic year and enforces strict guidelines regarding their employment in the subsequent academic years. These employment guidelines are subject to a case-by-case review of “special situations such as severe economic hardship or special student relief.” These guidelines hinder international student athletes’ ability to capitalize on NIL deals as they fear their visas will be revoked for violating USCIS employment restrictions.

International student-athletes are likely to face the same kinds of hardships already associated with student-athletes: pressure to perform both in sports and academics, financial issues, and deteriorating mental health. However, being half a world away from their loved ones can further aggravate these hardships. The ability for international student-athletes to receive compensation from their NIL would likely alleviate some of these stressors.

The NCAA is in the process of conducting additional forums and meetings with its member schools to address the concerns international student-athletes are facing. In the meantime, some of these athletes are bringing attention to these issues in an incredible way: by gifting their would-be compensation to their fellow teammates. Mason Fletcher, the Australian punter for the University of Cincinnati, decided to gift the proceeds he would have received from purchases of any merchandise branded with his name to the walk-ons of the University of Cincinnati’s football team. Fletcher hoped these profits would help alleviate any financial needs his fellow athletes may be facing.

Hopefully, Fletcher’s actions, as well as the concerns expressed by other international student-athletes, will aid in the push for a change in the laws preventing international student-athletes from utilizing their NIL. National and international student-athletes compete on the same level, and they deserve the same right to compensation. The landscape of NIL is ever-changing, but it is important that we do not overlook international student-athletes as we continue pushing for reform in this area.

Kate Rosenberg is a J.D. candidate for the Class of 2023 at Texas A&M University School of Law. She can be reached at @Katerosey1 on Twitter.

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