Skip to main content

Connecticut senators ask for NIL relief for international athletes

On3 imageby:Andy Wittry03/23/23


U.S. Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats from Connecticut, sent a letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Thursday to ask for DHS to provide guidance and updated regulations to allow international athletes to exercise their name, image and likeness rights similarly to their American teammates. The standard F-1 visa for students places limits on the types of income those visa holders can earn.

“(D)ue to withstanding regulations pertaining to international student visas that restrict students’ ability to enter into employment arrangements, international athletes remain unable to benefit from most of these recent changes,” the letter states. “Current regulations governing student visas do not speak to the unique circumstances around the use of international athletes’ NIL and what constitutes as employment for these purposes, and therefore have precluded these athletes from engaging in these activities.

“We believe this status quo is fundamentally unfair and requires your department to provide guidance related to current regulations along with initiating a rulemaking process to update the regulations for this unique subset of students. Absent such actions, colleges have no choice but to advise their athletes to refrain from any NIL activities, fearing these activities could put their visa statuses in jeopardy.”

Murphy and Blumenthal have been two of the most vocal members of Congress when it comes to issues related to college athletics and expanding the rights of athletes through potential legislation. Murphy co-authored the College Athlete Economic Freedom Act, one of a handful of federal bills that has involved college athletes’ NIL rights. Blumenthal introduced the College Athletes Bill of Rights last summer.

The NCAA, with a new president in former Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, and the Power 5 conferences, collectively taking their own approach to their strategy and lobbying, are turning to members of Congress as they lobby for the future they want. The issue of limited NIL opportunities for international athletes is one that might require a federal solution.

Senators cite international players at UConn

The senators sent their letter on the morning of the start of the Sweet 16 in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament; the regional semifinals in the women’s bracket start Friday. Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams at UConn are in the Sweet 16and each program has a roster that features multiple international athletes.

UConn’s women’s team is a No. 2 seed, and leading scorers Aaliyah Edwards and Lou Lopez Senechal are from Canada and France, respectively. The Huskies also have players from Croatia, Egypt, Hungary and Portugal. The men’s team is a No. 4 seed in the tournament. Leading scorer and rebounder Adama Sanogo was born in Mali.

This season’s men’s basketball All-America teams were full of veteran, traditional big men — similar to Sanogo — who have some of the greatest NIL-related earning potential among college athletes.

“Their performance on a stage where millions are watching and which generates more than a billion dollars in revenues would typically provide them with life-changing economic opportunities,” the letter says. “However, without any updates to the regulations surrounding the status of their visas, they must forgo these opportunities entirely or travel out of the United States, often to their countries of origin, to engage in any NIL activities. This arrangement is not good for the athletes, their colleges, college sports as a whole, or our economy as they are unable to participate meaningfully to it.”

International athletes and NIL opportunities

While freshman men’s basketball player Hansel Enmanuel, a native of the Dominican Republic who recently entered the transfer portal after playing his freshman season for Northwestern State (La.), is believed to be the first college athlete to receive an O-1 visa as an individual with “extraordinary ability or achievement” for NIL-related purposes, he’s one of the few who can qualify for the exclusive status.

“I mean, it’s not zero, but it’s not a lot,” Enmanuel’s immigration attorney, Amy Maldonado, previously told On3. She later continued, “I got an O-1A visa for a soccer coach who used to coach for Real Madrid. I mean, you have to be pretty bad-ass to get these visas.”

As a workaround, some international athletes have traveled abroad, either on their own or with their athletic program for a summer exhibition tour or non-conference event. Kentucky‘s Oscar Tshiebwe, the Naismith Player of the Year in 2022 who is a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, earned roughly $500,000 from promotional activities he filmed in the Bahamas last summer during the Wildcats’ foreign tour, The Athletic reported.

Maldonado told On3 last fall that she heard Tshiebwe’s team was trying to help him receive approval for an O-1 visa.

The NIL company Influxer facilitated the content production for Tshiebwe in the Bahamas. After its experience working with Tshiebwe around Kentucky’s schedule, the company facilitated sessions for dozens of men’s and women’s basketball players in November.

“We wanted to do it in a way that could be repeated and we knew that these tournaments were coming up. After we did it in the Bahamas with just Oscar, we knew that there would be about, oh, 40 or so different teams coming down to the Bahamas,” Influxer founder Tyler Jaynes previously told On3. “We knew that that meant there would be likely 60 to 70 international student-athletes and if we could just get them all in one place on-site at the resorts that they’re staying at, take a bunch of content, we can then sell that content to brands in the future since all of the active work was done in a different country and sell those assets as passive income.

“Obviously, we’ve gone over the top about transparency and seeking the right legal advice from immigration attorneys, international offices at each university, compliance every single step of the way and ultimately came to this plan and execution.”

Murphy and Blumenthal said in their letter that while March Madness games “offer the cleanest example” of the need to update student visa guidance and regulations, tens of thousands of international athletes across all sports are affected.

“The only thing standing in their way is our outdated regulations on the terms of their visas,” the letter says. “This is unacceptable. Your department has the authority and responsibility to provide guidance to colleges and their athletes about what current regulations allow international athletes to do as well as propose a rulemaking process that allows all the stakeholders involved to be a part of the solution. These steps cannot wait.”