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International students athletes get a raw deal out of NIL deal

A US Supreme Court ruling in favour of paying and sponsoring student sports stars as professionals to compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has come up against United States visa laws precluding international students from working more than 20 hours per month. This jeopardises the ability of international students to cash in on their name, image and likeness (NIL) rights.

Munya Maraire, CEO of World Wide Scholarships (WWS), which places talented African youth sports stars with American colleges and other sporting organisations, says the international students WWS represents need a combined voice to challenge the US visa laws so that they have the same earning power as their US counterparts.

“It’s not unusual for progressive law changes to encounter bureaucratic obstacles in the form of antithetical and incompatible policies, so what we need to do is demonstrate that the visa laws need to change at the same time for the regulations to make sense,” he says.

At the root of the problem is a recent ruling against the NCAA, which sought to maintain the status quo of student athletes competing as amateurs. The new laws, which take effect in July, will see college athletes being cleared to profit from their name, image and likeness, effectively opening the door to student sports stars making money from activities such as endorsements, autographs or hosting camps.

While those with United States citizenship are clear winners under the new laws, international students – such as the talented African youngsters WWS places into American colleges through scholarships – will lose out, thanks to the visa programme stipulations.

According to the NCAA’s statistics, just more than one in ten college athletes is an international student. “The laws were designed to ensure that people applying to study in the United States via a student visa were not intending to earn a substantial income as a professional at the same time, but international students will now be unable to benefit from the recognition that the students are actually the product that people pay to see,” says Maraire.

He says university sports ticket sales and television rights are all driven by the excitement brought by the college sports gladiator. “The day has come where the slave driver will now become the paymaster. This is not, greed, however. As a former international student, I remember having to save my food money disbursement from on the road trips in order to have some extra spending money when we got back to campus. It was quite embarrassing but necessary because a full scholarship does not cover anything outside of university-related expenses for the most part.”

Maraire and WWS now hope to work on behalf of all international students, not just African talent who are missing out, to get them their fair reward. “Given the finite span of the average sports career, a sponsorship for an athlete who still happens to be studying can be a significant deal that brings fair reward for the time and effort that goes into becoming a sports star. We reject out of hand the technicality which will prevent international students from benefiting in the same way,” he says.

“We have been the lead for linking African youths with opportunities for over a decade and this development is a much-needed windfall for the international student athlete. Many of these youngsters, despite being superstars in their towns and nationwide in the USA after the spotlight goes off, struggle to put groceries in their fridge or clothes on their backs outside of the sports equipment received from universities. The ability to be endorsed directly by sponsors will change lives.”

The definition creating the divide lies in the student visa regulations around work performed on campus, some of which would be subject to immigration officials’ discretion. The quantum leap in what professional students may earn would be a sticking point. Unfortunately, applying for a professional visa as a workaround would then cause similar problems with being enrolled as a full-time student.

So far, the United States federal government has not indicated that it will budge on its definitions of students and professionals. Legislators in various states have begun to mobilise bills that may pave the way for a more cohesive policy structure, but movement has been slow – the changes to the laws which take effect in July have been public knowledge for two years already.

“I am seeking an audience with the president of the NCAA. If this is not addressed by leaders like ourselves, the disparity will increase and further disadvantage international students whose visa regulations limit ability to work in the USA while being a student. Universities and students alike will need to receive the correct advice on how to handle the international student predicament and WWS can play a leading role. These are exciting times for college athletes whose personal brands have traditionally lined the pockets of the NCAA,” says Maraire.

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