The legality of NIL has opened up doors for student-athletes to explore marketing deals to profit off their brand.
However, the NIL landscape is still relatively loose-ended and without a nationwide legal guide, many student-athletes can get caught up on the wrong side of branding opportunities.
David McGriff, also known as The NIL Lawyer on Twitter, has been working in law for over two decades and when the NCAA reversed the ruling of name, image and likeness in July 2021, McGriff was one of the first legal experts in the field. So far, McGriff has negotiated NIL deals for his clients with a variety of companies that include Apple, Beats by Dre, American Eagle, Topps Trading Cards and Crypto.com.
McGriff has become a leading legal adviser in the NIL marketplace representing high-profile student-athletes such as former UCLA basketball player Johnny Juzang, Colorado football player Dylan Edwards, and three-star quarterback Israel Carter.
Recently, The NIL Deal had the chance to sit down with McGriff to discuss his partnerships with athletes, the legal world of NIL, and his perspective on how student-athletes should navigate the NIL sphere.
The NIL Deal: As an NIL lawyer what is your role for the student-athletes who hire you for representation?
McGriff: “So I have a variety of roles. The primary one obviously is as a lawyer, you want to negotiate the best possible deal for your client. Make sure it’s documented correctly. Make sure that there are provisions in place in which the client is paid in a proper and timely manner. And make sure that the obligations that the athlete is required to do are clearly defined so there’s no issue with whether the obligations have been done or not. Then beyond the contract review and negotiation, I find myself in a position where I’m advising these young athletes and their families. As to what NIL means, what the market looks like and in some cases I’m helping athletes and their families decide whether a person should enter the transfer portal or flip their commitment. So I become kind of a general adviser beyond just the contract negotiation and drafting.”
The NIL Deal: When you tell athletes what NIL means, what do you tell them?
McGriff: “A lot of people get lost in that. They think that NIL is some kind of esoteric thing and it’s just an acronym and it stands for name, image and likeness. Name is just your name. Your image is just a photograph of you. Your likeness is something other than a photograph and it’s still an interpretation of your image. So a computer image, a painting, something of that manner. Images of my clients have been used on bobbleheads and logos and all of those things represent a likeness that an athlete can monetize.”
The NIL Deal: Who are some of the athletes that you represent? When you go after athletes, is there a specific target student-athlete that you’re looking for? Or is it just all college athletes in general?
McGriff: “So it’s all college athletes in general, just ones that think they can use my guidance and I try to provide it. I started off the NIL portion of my career representing my main athlete Johnny Juzang, who had just come off of leading UCLA to the Elite Eight the prior March Madness. Once NIL was determined to be a thing in July 2021, Johnny was one of the athletes that was recognized by ESPN and others as one of the top athletes that would be monetizing NIL because of his high profile at that time. He was only at UCLA for another season before he turned pro, but we still were able to execute a number of deals. Immediately, trading card deals were available to him. Today in the marketplace, those trading card deals are kind of like the low hanging fruit that athletes can immediately execute. Beyond that, we got brand partnerships with a variety of clothing companies. American Eagle, Retro brand, along with a merchandising deal for a Jersey hybrid with his name on it that was sold at UCLA bookstores and online. We also did a deal with Beats by Dre where he got customized Beats that they made for him and his teammates. He also had a bobblehead deal. So he did a variety of deals in that one year and he was able to really take advantage of NIL and hit the ground running.
“This year, I’m going to represent a couple football players at new homes. Dylan Edwards who is at Colorado and with Deion Sanders. He’s had a long standing relationship with Coach Prime. He used to play for him when he was young in his youth football program. I’m really excited about him, he’s going to be a pretty marketable guy and he just recently won fastest man at the Under Armour camp. So, he’s going to be a dynamic player for Colorado.
“I also recently signed a dynamic dual-threat quarterback in Israel Carter. He’s out of Corona, California and I’m really excited to see what he does with the sphere of NIL. Then there’s a variety of other basketball players and football players that I help assist in navigating the NIL landscape.”
The NIL Deal: What is the advantage that hiring a lawyer like yourself gives athletes like Johnny Juzang and Israel Carter?
McGriff: “I think the advantage is having someone that is seeing a variety of deals and not just your deal. So they have a sense of the market. They have a sense of what the contract language should look like and what it should not look like. I’ve been practicing law for over 20 years, most of that in the space where I’m representing entertainers and athletes protecting their brands. They’re putting out music, they’re performing on the field or on the court — but off the court, off the field— they have their own brand that they are trying to nurture and establish and I help protect that. I make sure that they’re not disrupting it, blemishing it and they’re also not spreading themselves too thin, not entering into deals that conflict with one another. When you’re talking about student-athletes, it’s even more of a need for them to understand, What am I doing? What is NIL? How do I monetize it? How do I protect myself? I give them a level of comfort, talking to someone who knows the market, who’s been doing deals for a long time and also was at the very forefront of NlL.”
The NIL Deal: What would you say is the best way for student-athletes to be successful in NIL?
McGriff: “I think the best thing is start treating it like a business as if you are an entrepreneur and be thoughtful in their intention in terms of what brands you are going to approach. To look at themselves and their daily life and see what kind of products they use or where they eat, that local burger spot or whatever it is in their town close to campus. Then also to just be aggressive. Start approaching companies or brands and say, ‘Hey, this is who I am. This is the sport I play. This is where I play.’ And see if people are interested. I mean there’s a lot of opportunity on all levels of college, not just Division I. It’s also not just football and basketball. It’s across all levels of college sports and I think that’s the thing that’s empowering to students and is really exciting.”
The NIL Deal: Since that July 1, 2021 start date and until now how have you seen NIL change and how have you adapted to it?
McGriff: “One of the biggest things is when NIL first started in July 2021, collectives weren’t a thing. People have never heard of them because they didn’t exist. They quickly started forming in the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022 and that started to shift, particularly in the football world, how NIL worked and it’s something that’s still being figured out. There are deals that have been executed and performed and people are happy on both sides. Then there are situations where that hasn’t been the case. I think that overall the proliferation of collectives has added a whole different dimension to NIL and is something that is expanding. But I think also what it’s done is it’s created outsides expectations for some individuals getting into this space. One of my jobs involves managing the expectations of these student-athletes and letting them know what’s realistic and what isn’t. Because that’s the only way that they will enter into a deal with a good feeling. If they think they’re being taken advantage of right off the bat that’s not a good start to any kind of relationship and it could impact them on the court or on the field and that’s really the main thing.”
The NIL Deal: How influential do you think NIL has become in terms of the Transfer Portal? In high school commitments, how do you navigate your student-athletes when trying to find a balance between picking the right place but also somewhere where they can maximize their profits?
McGriff: “When I talk to parents they ask me, how important should money be? Should we just be looking for the biggest number? I tell them that NIL is empowering and it adds extra opportunities and options for student-athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness when previously those rights have been stripped from them. But at the end of the day players should still be picking the place that they feel most comfortable. For example, if they’re a defensive player and they’re used to running a particular defensive scheme go to a school where they run that scheme or is they’re a quarterback and they use a particular type of offense go to a school that runs that kind of offense. Don’t try to fit a circle into a square peg just because you think you’re going to get some extra money. The other thing is going back to what I said earlier about money being promised and not panning out. It would be really unfortunate for a player to base his or her decision on what they think they’re going to get in terms of NIL money, when it may turn out the promises weren’t real to begin with.”
The NIL Deal: What are some of the challenges that you face in the legal aspect of NIL?
McGriff: “One of the biggest challenges is operating in a space where a lot of people don’t know exactly what is going on and what the line is. I’ve seen a lot of agreements that have been presented to my clients that are just not appropriate. They’re asking for way too much for very little in return. The deals, some of them are actually running afoul of the NCAA guidelines in terms of tying the money to performance instead of just being NIL. Or the length of the contract, trying to tie up the rights for beyond their college playing days. Those things are not appropriate. One of the challenges is educating not only the players, but sometimes educating the brand partners, just educating people as to what is and isn’t okay in the NIL space.”
The NIL Deal: Where do you see the future of NIL going over these next couple of years?
McGriff: “I mean the sky’s the limit. The numbers I think are going to get bigger. The deals are going to be more common. I think as the market is established and also matures there’s going to be a better understanding of what numbers make sense in these deals. Also I think there’s going to be more of a meeting of the minds between athletes and brand partners, athletes and collectives, and just all the way around. The lack of certainty has caused a lot of bruised egos and some failed expectations that have really damaged how some kids view NIL. It’s kind of turned them off and that’s really unfortunate because this isn’t what this was supposed to be. NIL was not supposed to be a negative thing. It’s supposed to be an empowering thing, a restoration of rights that have been stripped away from these athletes. And if it stays that way, then I think that it’ll be better off for NIL in general.