Ali Iveson

The college sports landscape in the United States changed forever last year when the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) introduced new rules allowing student-athletes to make money off their name, image and likeness (NIL). 

Necessitated by various states passing legislation allowing student-athletes to earn sponsorship income, the NCAA rules were long overdue in the eyes of athlete advocates and represented a major shift in the approach to preserving the amateur status of collegiate sport - something which has long been quaint to observers from overseas.

Yet one group who have been left out of the ensuing money-grab - one that heralds the end of college athletics as we knew it and all that is good in the world, if you listen to certain collegiate coaches on seven-figure annual salaries - is foreign student-athletes.

There are more than 20,000 international student-athletes in the US, according to the NCAA’s own figures. 

Yet with the overwhelming majority on student visas which place tight limits on what money they can earn and how when studying in the self-proclaimed Land of the Free, they are not afforded the freedom to access NIL deals the like of which their native counterparts have been signing up to since the floodgates opened last July. 

The F-1 visa, for academic students, permits only "on-campus" employment or practical employment - except in cases of "severe economic hardship". 

NIL income does not fall under this remit.

This means that while the US college sports landscape has been redesigned for American student-athletes, who are finally able to make money off their NIL in the same way that universities have been doing for generations, the calculus for foreign athletes debating whether or not heading to a US school is the right decision for them has remained largely unchanged.

That, it seems, could itself change sooner rather than later. 

Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young made more than $1 million in NIL deals before making a college start, according to his coach ©Getty Images
Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young made more than $1 million in NIL deals before making a college start, according to his coach ©Getty Images

At least one petition has been launched calling on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to change the rules, or at least its interpretation of them, to have NIL deals covered under the umbrella of on-campus employment. 

The NOCAP petition later wants Congress to pass legislation creating a visa subcategory for international student-athletes, arguing that "in the spirit of fairness and equality to international college athletes, adjustments are needed to immigration policy, regulation, and statute". 

This would leave the playing field levelled "for all athletes, whether domestic or international."

While the petition is set up by a company which brokers NIL deals, who has a vested interest in the matter, the argument it makes is by no means a lone cry. 

Plenty of international student-athletes in US have asked to be treated the same as their American peers. 

Congolese Kentucky Wildcats basketball player Oscar Tshiebwe is one and is reported to have discussed Congressional efforts to open up NIL opportunities to international student-athletes at a meeting with Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader who also represents the state of Kentucky, on Tuesday (April 12). 

Grey areas and restrictions which seem illogical on their surface are likely to persist until there is decisive legislative change, or enough water has passed under the bridge that compliance experts can accurately account for the current and what will and will not be deemed within the rules. 

Jaz Shelley, an Under-17 Basketball World Cup winner with Australia now playing collegiate basketball as a Nebraska Cornhusker, tweeted recently that she would be open for NIL deals for a six-week window when back home in Australia only. 

Everybody Wants Some!! 

One would imagine change is coming somewhere down the line. 

Even in today’s divided world it is hard to make the argument that student-athletes from outside the US are not entitled to profit from their own name just as Americans are. 

When they are allowed to do so, it will be good news for athletes from a wide range of Olympic sports.

Many already choose to go down the US collegiate path. 

Benefits include the chance to get an education - frequently on a scholarship and therefore without having to fork out hundreds of thousands of dollars for the same privilege - plus access to state-of-the-art facilities and top-level coaching in some cases. 

Highly competitive sport - in some instances not too far removed from the elite - is another compelling attraction, while stability and the chance to live in the US can also appeal.

It is not an easy life and what you sacrifice would traditionally be held up as the con here - but if NIL opportunities were opened up and international student-athletes had the chance to profit off their image, the case for Coming to America could suddenly have increased pull. 

And the knock-on impact for the Olympics has the potential to be significant, with NCAA National Championships awarded in at least 16 current Olympic sports.

International students being able to sign NIL deals could in theory attract more of them, or if a hard cap on numbers is in place at least attract a higher calibre of athletes. 

The better the athletes entering the system, it stands to reason the better the quality the athletes leaving it will be, and standards would be driven up in the process. 

Iron sharpens iron, so it could be a win-win for those from the US as well as those from outside.

Small and developing nations in particular may benefit. 

They are the least likely to be able to provide emerging athletes with top-level coaching and facilities - if their athletes can suddenly enjoy these in the US without suffering commercially, this could level the playing field. 

More Olympians or potential Olympians heading to US colleges additionally has the potential for holistic benefits, such as being better prepared for their post-sport careers. 

If nothing else, the aforementioned benefits - however theoretical - should force the proponents of alternative routes to up their game and develop what they offer athletes to stave off the threat of a talent drain to the US collegiate ranks. 

Be they financial incentives or otherwise. 

Athletes are so often the victims when it comes to any major overhaul within sport, yet in this scenario the balance of power appears to be swinging in their favour - albeit from a place out of outright exploitation. 

The picture painted in these last few paragraphs may be a utopian one and put too much faith in both American university sport and decision-makers taking action which is fair.

Yet it is something to aim for as only once international student-athletes are free to benefit their own name, image and likeness - as institutions have been for decades - will we get there, and that step is unequivocally a positive one.