Grayson McCall

Grayson McCall avoids a tackle in a 52-23 win over Arkansas State in 2020. McCall and thousands of NCAA athletes can now profit from their name, image and likeness following recent policies put in place by the NCAA. Photo by Ian Livingston Brooking.

Grayson McCall capitalized on his mullet.

The star Coastal Carolina quarterback, who last season emerged as a touchdown machine, on Friday signed with the sports branding company Playmaker. And yes, McCall’s new logo incorporates the signature business-in-the-front-party-in-back hairstyle that he and other Chanticleers sported last fall.

“Guys tell me to cut my mullet and I’m like ‘Dude, I can’t. It’s part of my brand now,’” McCall said. “It’s something we created. It’s something that kind of went worldwide this past season. [The mullet] is something that I’m definitely going to use in my favor."

The fact that McCall can profit at all from his own image is a new development. After years of debate and months of pressure from numerous states, the NCAA finally changed its stance on college athletes receiving compensation for their name, image, and likeness (NIL) and adopted an interim policy that allows athletes to benefit from being, well, themselves. As of July 1, all incoming players for the 2021-2022 athletic year and all current student-athletes in all sports across all three NCAA divisions can now profit off their NIL.

“This is an important day for college athletes since they all are now able to take advantage of name, image and likeness opportunities,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement on the NCAA’s website. “With the variety of state laws adopted across the country, we will continue to work with Congress to develop a solution that will provide clarity on a national level. The current environment — both legal and legislative — prevents us from providing a more permanent solution and the level of detail student-athletes deserve.”

The decision came after 20 states, including South Carolina, passed legislation that allowed student-athletes to have the opportunity to profit from their NIL. Eight of those 20 states had laws that took effect on July 1.

While South Carolina’s legislation, S.685, was supposed to begin applying on July 1, 2022, the recent developments by the NCAA cleared the way for the state to move the date to July 1 of this year, according to S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.

“The legislation ensures fairness to our athletes, which is a very good thing. The law should immediately go into effect,” Wilson said in a prepared statement. “This law provides guardrails to protect student-athletes so they can benefit financially without being taken advantage of.”

State Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Little River, was the primary sponsor for the latest legislative change. He said the legislation was prompted by an antitrust case, NCAA v. Alston, that went before the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 21, the country’s highest court unanimously sided with student-athletes, essentially showing the NCAA that times have changed. In a 45-page document produced by the court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the staunchest critic of the NCAA.

“Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate,” Kavanaugh wrote. “And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different. The NCAA is not above the law.”

According to the NCAA, the governing body of college athletics made $1.2 billion in 2019. While the NCAA did take a major hit in 2020, suffering a 54% drop in revenue due to the pandemic-forced cancellations of certain tournaments such as March Madness and the men’s and women’s College World Series, the NCAA did manage to bring in a total of $519.2 million.

But while the NCAA has long profited from the name, image and likeness of college athletes, the players until now haven’t seen a dime of that billion- dollar revenue business because the NCAA viewed them as amateurs.

Hembree disagrees.

“College football is not a game of amateurs anymore,” he said.

State Rep. Tim McGinnis, R-Carolina Forest, said the bill passed by South Carolina lawmakers in May paved the way for programs like Clemson, South Carolina, Coastal Carolina and others to be on an even playing field among other states that had enacted similar laws.

“If we hadn’t passed this legislation, we would’ve been at big risk losing top recruits, and that’s not a situation we need to put our schools in,” McGinnis said.

Recruiting prospective athletes is a highly competitive endeavor. For South Carolina programs to get the best recruits, lawmakers wanted the state’s colleges and universities to have the same tools that states like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and California had.

“We saw that South Carolina was going to be left behind in this race,” Hembree said.

Hembree added some of South Carolina’s top universities, including Clemson, Coastal Carolina and South Carolina, brought the idea for this bill forward and helped lawmakers craft the legislation.

“It was very time sensitive, too,” Hembree said. “Luckily we were to get it through the education committee and on the floor and then it became the law of the land.”

With that “law of the land” now in place, many student-athletes across the country and in the Palmetto State are looking to take advantage of the opportunities now set before them.

That includes McCall.

“It’s definitely super cool and it’s something that everyone has been pushing for a while,” he said.

The NCAA’s new policy now gives all 50 states the even playing field that South Carolina lawmakers were hoping for.

The NCAA’s journey to this point actually started just before Halloween 2019 when the NCAA’s Board of Governors instructed all divisions to create flexibility in their name, image and likeness rules.

Under the previous NCAA guidelines, Division I athletes could not promote or endorse products or services, even if they were not paid to participate in the activity.

South Carolina has 12 Division I colleges and universities and 14 schools within the D-II ranks. Bob Jones University is set to become South Carolina’s lone D-III school in 2023.

For over a year, all three divisions met with the Board of Governors to discuss future NIL policies, including a meeting in September where all divisions began to develop initial legislative policies regarding NIL. Two months later, all divisions drafted legislation for updated NIL rules.

Former Coastal Carolina defensive back Nicholas Clark was a part of those meetings as the chair of the Board of Governors Student-Athlete Engagement Committee. Clark has been a part of numerous committees, starting with the transfer working group in 2017 that involved the creation of the transfer portal. Clark currently works as the executive assistant to the vice president of hearing operations at the NCAA, which is essentially the legal department of the NCAA.

As a former college athlete, Clark sees the benefits that can come from the recent rules set in place by the NCAA.

“This opens up so many opportunities for student-athletes from low-resource institutions that may not have the means to provide for themselves,” Clark said. “This puts a little bit of extra money in their pocket.”

During the NIL-reforming process, Clark sat in meetings with NCAA presidents, chancellors and even the NCAA president himself. During those meetings, critics raised objections to athletes profiting from their name, image and likeness. Clark said he did his best to try and put those people in his shoes when he was a student-athlete at Coastal from 2013 to 2017.

“We live in a landscape of college athletics where student-athletes typically haven’t had a voice,” Clark said. “What I was saying to them, to be candid, was that college athletics wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the student-athletes. People really forget that. This isn’t about anybody else but the student-athlete.”

Clark said that he would question officials regarding the fine line that the NCAA was placing on athletes.

“We already say student-athletes can’t get paid, right? Student-athletes can’t get paid by the school,” he said. “Well, you don’t have to. Student-athletes can do that on their own.”

Clark mentioned to officials the difficulties college athletes face when it comes to community engagement.

“The whole foundation of this conversation is to provide student-athletes for life after football or life after sports,” Clark said. “And every meeting I would come prepared for those conversations and I would talk about me, my teammates, my experience being in the Big South and then the Sun Belt and it’s just, an opportunity like NIL has the chance to really give student-athletes the opportunity to brand themselves and set themselves up for success.”

Clark also made the point that not every athlete in the NCAA is on scholarship, noting that there are college athletes across the country that try fit time in their already jam-packed schedules to find a job on or near campus to help provide for themselves or sometimes for their families back home.

McCall hopes the new rules put forth by the NCAA will lift that burden off of those athletes.

“People say these college athletes are getting a free education but other people that aren’t held down to the NCAA to where companies or other people that are using their name, image or likeness, they’re getting paid for it,” McCall said. “They’re getting a profit from it. I think it’s definitely fair that student-athletes get the same treatment. It’s definitely important because we are student-athletes and our schedules are stacked. Most guys don’t have time to have a job. In the summer, it’s the only time where they can really work and even then, our schedules are pretty tight right now so you’re not getting many hours in. I think it’ll be big for a lot of student-athletes.”

While the NCAA has relaxed its NIL rules, there are still some restrictions. For example, universities and/or athletic boosters cannot utilize NIL to bring in recruits nor can they offer payment or services to prospective athletes in the hopes of bringing them to their school.

South Carolina’s new law is not “pay to play” legislation, meaning the university cannot pay the athletes for participation in athletic events. This legislation focuses on allowing athletes to brand themselves and profit from their name, image and likeness through third parties. College athletes are required to document all NIL contracts and endorsement deals with their respective college or university, and NIL contracts cannot extend past an athlete’s time at a college or university.

“It’s a very strong bill,” Coastal Carolina Athletics Director Matt Hogue said. “It’s something that allows the student-athlete to pursue this opportunity but it also protects them from some of the nefarious issues that can come into play. It gives the universities fair amount of guidance and controls. It works really well for all parties.”

Hogue said there has been trepidation among administrators over the years as the conversation about NIL issues seemed to grow louder. But in the end, the reality of changing times caught up.

“This is something whose time has come,” Hogue said. “Everyone is more focused on how do we execute it correctly. How do we do it in a manner that it will be sound, not just to the athletes but to the university and the process. And I think that’s really the pivot that we’ve seen as the focus is making something like this work well and doing what we can to support student-athletes in pursuing these endeavors.”

Hembree also noted about how times have changed, especially with the influence of social media.

“You got high school kids making $200,000 a year as internet influencers,” Hembree said. “There’s not the structure that we’ve had before. It’s a bit of a free market, a true free market with the internet and so we had to recognize that.”

A point of emphasis in South Carolina’s legislation is enabling a college athlete to bring on an agent to help them build their brand. In years past, student-athletes would have had to forgo their eligibility to sign with an agent, regardless if they were to be drafted or sign with a professional team.

Now, student-athletes can sign with an agent for the purposes of name, image and likeness, according to the bill.

Hogue said the state legislation and recent moves by the NCAA are about more than just an athlete capitalizing on their NIL.

“A big part of this is designed to simply open up the marketplace for an athlete to go be someone who maybe takes advantage of their social media presence or maybe they want to go start up their own business,” Hogue said. “We tend to get a little bit lost sometimes on the thought process of the star athlete capitalizing on the fact that he’s the star athlete in a sport. Certainly we will see some of that occur.”

Hogue said that the bill now eliminates some restrictions for athletes who perhaps wanted to start a car detailing business or do a do-it-yourself carpentry on TikTok. Those kinds of opportunities were restricted by the NCAA.

One of the most well-known cases was in 2017 when University of Central Florida kicker Donald De La Haye was forced to choose his YouTube channel over his athletic eligibility after it was discovered that he was making money from advertisements. De La Haye used his YouTube channel to show trick shots as a kicker as well as sports-related skits. He said the channel pertained more to his major, which was marketing, rather than football. In the end, De La Haye chose his channel and left the team prior to the 2017 season.

Other cases like De La Haye included a Minnesota wrestler was deemed ineligible in 2013 after making money from a song he wrote, recorded and put on iTunes.

Following the NCAA’s announcement regarding NIL, De La Haye sent out a message to all student-athletes on social media.

“I crawled so that my College Athlete brothers and sisters could run!” De La Haye posted on Instagram. “History was made today! All my NCAA athletes.. GO SECURE THAT BAG YOU DESERVE.”

Now that the laws are in place for many states as well as the NCAA relaxing its policies, what comes next?

For administrators at colleges and universities around the country, it’s a combination of working with athletes and educating them while also having discussions among themselves to get a better feel for the new era of college athletics.

According to state law, NIL cannot be viewed as financial aid and should not have any effect on a student-athletes financial aid. The legislation also says that colleges and universities can directly or indirectly help student-athletes find NIL opportunities. The bill does grant colleges and universities the right to create certain policies regarding NIL to protect the athletes and also the institution itself. For instance, according to the legislation, student-athletes cannot use NIL to be compensated while in class, club or athletics/team-mandated events that are defined by their respective institution.

College athletes still have to follow the proper code of conduct at their respective schools and institutions can prevent athletes from getting compensation if an NIL opportunity conflicts with existing agreements with sponsors or the school’s code of conduct.

And while state law does give athletes the opportunity to build their brand with many companies, there are restrictions on the types of businesses the athletes can promote. For example, athletes cannot use their NIL to sponsor tobacco, illegal substances or gambling (including sports gambling). There also may be some companies that athletes cannot sign with due to a university’s previous agreements with a competitor.

“We have an apparel contract with Under Armour, so that would prohibit a student-athlete from being able to capitalize with Nike,” Hogue said. “You have some of those types of restrictions on how much the institution can be capitalized when they go out and get a deal.”

The law goes on to say that college athletes must meet the requirements put forth by their respective institution, including grades and attendance.

“What’s good about the South Carolina law is that puts protections where protections are necessary,” Hogue said. “There was a great deal of thought put in to let’s make sure we have restrictions that protects the academic integrity of what’s going on as well.”

While McCall has his sights set on the upcoming season, he also has been doing his research on NIL.

“I’ve been trying to learn more on it and talk to different people and learn as much as I can on it because it’s something that college athletes can take advantage of,” McCall said. “Definitely cool. Definitely something I’m looking forward to.”

McCall said that building a personal brand, regardless of the sport, is important.

“You get exposed to the marketing aspects of things, trying to build your name and your brand. It’s definitely beneficial,” he said. “It’s something that I recommend all student athletes to take advantage of. If college athletics are the end for you, just build your brand, get you ahead of everyone else.”

With Coastal’s football success last fall — going undefeated in the regular season, making a bowl game and having ESPN’s “College GameDay” on campus — McCall said that paves the way for athletes who may not be on someone’s radar to rise up and grab hold of the opportunities presented to them.

Other athletes on CCU’s football program have shared on their social media platforms their willingness to work with companies regarding NIL. Linebacker Silas Kelly, who, like McCall, has a flowing mullet, has tweeted to shampoo company Head & Shoulders, expressing his willingness to land what seems to be a rather fitting NIL deal.

“I hope guys on the team get their names out there,” McCall said. “Speaking for myself, I am definitely going to try my best to help get my teammates exposed as much as I can, as well as the school and our football program.”

Reach Ian Livingston Brooking at 843-248-6882 for any story ideas or news happening in your area.

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