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STUDENT ATHLETES

Alcohol, the NCAA, & NIL’s Upperclassman Advantage

Florida Atlantic’s N’Kosi Perry has opened the door for college athletes to sign alcohol-related NIL deals — and things could get controversial.

Two months into the NIL era, hundreds of student-athletes have signed hundreds of partnerships to make money on their notoriety and accomplishments. From national fast food chains to trading cards to hair products, the early returns show limitless ways for players across sports to earn money.

And as students cross certain age barriers, the opportunities expand into intriguing territory.

In September, Florida Atlantic quarterback N’Kosi Perry, a graduate transfer from the Miami Hurricanes, became the first known college athlete to sign a deal with a brand in the beer, wine, and spirits industry. Islamorada Beverages, a Florida-based brewery and distillery, signed the 23-year-old Perry to the landmark deal, opening the door for other athletes to pursue adult consumables — or the other way around.

Needless to say that the NCAA has a shaky-at-best relationship with alcohol. Its Board of Governors voted to lift the ban on alcohol sales at on-campus collegiate sporting events in May 2019, but this leniency is only extended to beer and wine, and each school gets to decide whether or not to sell those products in the first place.

Specifically with regards to NIL deals, the NCAA has left it up to the individual schools and their respective state governments to determine which brands and industries are off-limits. Some have explicitly banned their athletes from partnering with companies in the alcohol, cannabis, gambling, or adult entertainment spaces.

The next step is to see whether such restrictions play a role in recruiting. Right or wrong, that’s a phenomenon that could absolutely prompt institutions (and state capitols) to re-evaluate.

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Existing Sponsorships and Policy

The NCAA has a myriad of major, national sponsorship deals, including ones with Oldsmobile, Gatorade, Gillette, Dr. Pepper, and American Airlines, but does not currently have any with alcohol or tobacco brands.

Still, the average age of college students enrolled full-time in US colleges is 21.6 years old — slightly above the legal drinking age.

As of now, 78 Division I schools allow the sale of alcohol on-site during games, but that leaves plenty that still do not. There are 12.8 million people between the ages of 18 and 19 who are enrolled in colleges nationwide; while young adults do not make up the entire fan demographic for college sports, the NCAA rightfully cannot allow itself to be seen as encouraging illegal, underage use of adult beverages.

With more deals like Perry’s basically inevitable now, that puts college sports’ controversial, oft-criticized governing body in an increasingly uncomfortable spot.

The NCAA still purports the foundational ideal of protecting its student-athletes. Whether or not they consistently, successfully do this is a separate question, but this advancement of the NIL era into the world of adult vices proposes a new kind of challenge.

Will the NCAA Step In?

The NCAA has a history of doling out harsh penalties to athletes who violate the rules, though it should be noted that Perry hasn’t explicitly done anything of the sort here. As athletes and schools navigate the sudden changes and sudden benefits of the name, image, and likeness era, guidance must be at the forefront of the NCAA’s decision-making — not setting examples through punishment and hindrance.

Perry is old enough to have a deal with a brewing company. It’s simply what the law says. This does not automatically mean there will be scores of athletes looking to do the same, but it also does not mean he will be the only collegiate athlete with such a deal in due time.

With that in mind, the NCAA must continue to allow players this freedom while being wary of these companies and their agendas as well. For example — making sure no beer, wine, and spirits brand enables or glorifies underage drinking or coaxing student-athletes to engage in a manner of partnership that exceeds the bounds of what NIL rules permit.

The NIL era is amusing in many ways. But putting guardrails in place to protect student-athletes must always be the first priority for schools, governments, and (in a perfect world) the NCAA. Mistakes will probably be made along the way, but how the college sports establishment deals with this brave new world of boozy athlete partnerships will be a critical test case for just how far we still have to go on the long road toward just, equitable amateur athlete compensation.