From checks in lockers to paid appearances, college athletes have been cashing in — but the rules are leaving one group out

Visa laws have prevented international students from benefiting from the NCAA’s Name, Image and Likeness opportunities

BYU guard Maria Albiero (5) drives as Villanova forward Brianna Herlihy (14) defends during the second half of a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Saturday, March 19, 2022, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Maria Albiero didn’t understand why she was in the room.

It was the middle of July last year, and Albiero was told by BYU administrators to come to the local Marriott hotel. All other female athletes would be in attendance, they said, but the purpose of the meeting was unknown.

And when Albiero, BYU’s starting point guard from Brazil, arrived in the ballroom, she saw Jonathan Oliver up on stage.

“I want to help you!” the owner of the Utah company SmartyStreets shouted.

He then pointed to a track and field athlete and wrote her a check for $6,000 — a welcome to the new era of college sports, where athletes are finally allowed to cash in on their name, image and likeness. Oliver continued to go around the room, telling each player they too would get a check for thousands of dollars.

Albiero and the rest of the international athletes in the room, however, were about to be left out.

“It turned out that he was helping everybody except us,” Albiero later said. “So there was like a chunk of us sitting there, told to be there, and we’re just like, ‘OK, this doesn’t apply to us. We’re not gonna get anything.’ It hurts.”

Even as university athletics departments embrace the NCAA’s new Name, Image and Likeness rules, U.S. visa laws are precluding international students from enjoying the same benefits as their American teammates.

It was uncomfortable for Albiero in the earliest days of the new NIL rules. As BYU proactively sought deals for its athletes, Albiero’s teammates were cashing in on thousands of dollars, while she could only watch.

“Checks were all around the locker room and there was a lot of money everywhere,” said BYU basketball player Signe Glantz, a native of Sweden.

But it is even more uncomfortable now for international athletes, who continue to see no progress in NIL laws nearly a year after they went into effect. Walk-ons have struck deals with Buffalo Wild Wings and role players have been making a living off of the app Cameo. But international athletes have yet to profit from their names, even as they continue to contribute to the success of their programs.

And as the checks get bigger, and colleges explore the limits of the NIL era, international athletes feel stuck in the often-archaic rules of the visa process.

“After NIL passed, [international athletes] were the next question,” said Ben Chase, an attorney specializing in NIL. “And to be honest there hasn’t been a ton of progress on it.”

Getting out the message

Sydney Soloski fired off a Tweet early this April with a simple goal in mind: reinvigorate the message.

To her thousands of followers, in the heat of her gymnastics season, she wrote, “Please sign! We want to use our name, image and likeness too!”

Below, she attached a petition for international athletes to be included in the NIL laws. Within hours, the Utah gymnast had hundreds of signatures.

“Momentum is huge,” said Tay Hawkins, an NIL expert who advises Soloski. “This is a policy issue, we need eyes on it. With governments, the issue is complex.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sydney Soloski on the floor at the Pac-12 gymnastics championships at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Saturday, March 19, 2022.

Of course, the issue has been the same for international athletes for the last year. It deals with the F1 visa, the type most students come to the United States on.

According to the law, students cannot actively earn compensation off-campus unless it pertains to their studies. This means most NIL deals — requiring posting, signing or promoting — are off the table.

Some have speculated that perhaps international athletes could earn money passively. But the situation is murky.

“The last thing you want to do, as a university, is do something that can have a kid deported,” Brad Blevins, a registered NIL attorney, said.

So the changes that need to be made, athletes and experts say, involve rewriting part of the U.S. visa laws. For now, that means petitions and a grassroots political moment — and for international students, that can be challenging. They do not vote, and thus do not have much political capital.

Then there is the other side of the problem: rewriting any portion of the visa law could open up all students to earn compensation, not just athletes. Experts say it is hard to create a specific loophole just for athletes to make money. And if every student is allowed to earn money, and get jobs, it runs up against the original purpose of the visa laws: to protect the US economy. Traditionally, student visas were intended to only allow students to get an education.

Life on the edges

Glantz admits life has been “weird” for international athletes for the last year.

It is like they are on the front lines of a battle that isn’t theirs to win. Schools have put together NIL collectives, built up war chests of money, and international athletes are often the centerpieces of the success that drives it all.

When it comes time to reap the benefits, though, they are an afterthought.

The BYU SmartyStreets deal is just one example. All of the domestic athletes, even the walk-ons, found checks for $6,000 in their lockers. But internationals, who make up nearly 25% of the women’s basketball roster, got nothing.

Instead, the coaching staff used their portion of the team deal to take them to “Hamilton.”

“That’s not the same as getting the money and saving for the future and investing,” Glantz said.

At the University of Utah, every gymnast received a Louis Vuitton bag as they made their run to the Final Four. The internationals were simply left out.

At the beginning of the season, many internationals reached out to agents thinking that eventually the issue would be resolved. But the reality has now set in that things are going to be slow to change.

“To be honest, [we don’t] talk much about it with the people who make money,” Albiero said. “Some girls have expressed they feel bad for us. But like, we don’t go in depth because I don’t know if they feel awkward talking about it.”

The road ahead

Even if this is a political issue, one impetus for immediate change has nothing to do with politics — and that is recruitment.

Chase believes if this continues, international athletes will start staying overseas. And in turn, coaches are going to lose recruits that could make their group competitive.

If rewriting a visa law would help a recruiting pitch, athletic departments will start putting pressure on politicians to make the fix.

We have already started to see it happen. In Kentucky, players are meeting with senators to make a change. Kentucky’s All-American forward Oscar Tshweibe, a player from the Congo, recently met with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell to talk about the issue.

Tshweibe recently was granted a rare financial hardship waiver as an international player, allowing him to take advantage of NIL opportunities despite his F1 student visa. As a result, he has reportedly made over $1 million dollars and is staying at Kentucky for a second season.

“I do think teams have had more and more international players.” Albiero said. “So I definitely think that it’s going to come to a point where coaches and schools will want to fight for [us].

“I just don’t know how much they can do about it.”

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