A gropu of women running on a track in a distance event.
Many U.S. states have passed legislation that will allow college athletes to profit from use of their name, image, and likeness (photo by Phil Roeder licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The issue of amateurism has long been a subject of debate and controversy in U.S. college sport. In 1916, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) adopted an official definition of an amateur athlete as “one who participates in competitive physical sports only for the pleasure, and the physical, mental, moral, and social benefits directly derived therefrom.” This initial definition, which prohibited any form of remuneration including scholarships, has been frequently contested and revised over the years.

A primary front in the current struggle over amateurism is the right of college athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL)—a right that has been highly restricted by the NCAA up to this point. While many advocates have long pushed for change, the urgency of the issue increased when California SB 206 was signed into law on Sept. 31, 2019. The law, scheduled to go into effect in 2023, would effectively allow college athletes in California to earn compensation for use of their likeness, sign endorsement deals, and hire agents to represent them. Since the passage of SB 206, numerous other states have passed similar laws, at least six of which are scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2021. Such legislation has forced a timeline on the NCAA to take action.

As a former college basketball player studying sport management (author 1) and a faculty member in socio-cultural studies of sport (author 2), we have followed developments related to the current NIL situation closely. Using data from author 1’s master’s thesis, we examined the ways in which the issue of NIL rights in college sport have been framed in media coverage. When journalists write about an issue, they “frame” the issue in a certain way by selecting the types of information, words, sources, and quotes that are included (and excluded) in their coverage. The ways in which an issue is framed in the media can influence how members of the public perceive and interpret the issue. One important component of framing is the inclusion (and exclusion) of certain voices when journalists quote “expert” sources in their coverage of an issue. For this study, we used a systematic search of online databases to identify news articles published about amateurism and NIL rights in college sport between January 2019 and January 2021. Through this process, we identified 113 articles with substantive coverage of the NIL debate.

In news articles covering the NIL debate during this time period, 67 articles (59.3%) quoted an official NCAA source, such as NCAA President Mark Emmert, who was quoted 39 times. Politicians, including governors, state representatives, and federal legislators, were quoted a total of 112 times in 54 articles (47.4% of the sample). Behind these two prominent groups, college athletic directors were quoted in 26 articles (23.0%), members of athlete advocacy groups (such as National College Players Association Executive Director Ramogi Huma) were quoted in 26 articles (23.0%), representatives of conferences (such as the Southeastern Conference) were quoted in 23 articles (20.4%), and university administrators (such as college presidents) were quoted in 20 articles (17.7%). Notably, current college athletes were quoted in just 6 of the 113 articles (5.3%) analyzed in the study. You can find complete data in the table at the end of the article.

Many of the articles we examined framed the issue of NIL rights as being contested or debated—for example, by quoting a politician speaking about the importance of athletes being able to control their NIL rights, juxtaposed with a quote from an NCAA official talking about the importance of maintaining the integrity of their “collegiate model.” Journalists frequently selected quotations from politicians that criticized the NCAA and called for change, such as Senator Cory Booker, a former football player at Stanford University, stating:

The NCAA continues to fight tooth and nail, excuse after excuse, to ensure that college athletes, specifically Black athletes, who generate an outsized amount of college sport revenue and aren’t able to share in the $15 billion industry that college sports has become.

In contrast, NCAA officials were frequently quoted at length responding to developments such as California SB 206:

“The California law and other proposed measures ultimately would lead to pay for play and turn college athletes into employees,” the NCAA said Tuesday after a meeting of its leadership at Emory University in Atlanta. “This directly contradicts the mission of college sports within higher education — that student-athletes are students first and choose to play a sport they love against other students while earning a degree.”

In this way, journalists often presented “both sides” of the issue by framing it as a debate with two, potentially equally valid, viewpoints.

Despite the presence of varying perspectives in this coverage, including many sources that advocated for change, the voices of those most directly impacted—the college athletes who stand to potentially profit from controlling their NIL rights—were largely missing in this mediated debate. Of course, many factors may contribute to the paucity of quotes from current athletes, such as barriers to contacting athletes or media members’ fears about a loss of access if they publish content that upsets athletic department administrators. However, college athletes are frequently quoted in media coverage of their competitive events (for example, coverage of a basketball game). With respect to the debate about NIL rights, therefore, current college athletes may be facing pressure to “stick to sports”—a case of their perspective being valued when it comes to performance on the court, but marginalized regarding issues that affect their lives outside of sporting competition.

Given the role of mass media in informing the public and potentially influencing people’s perceptions, the omission of athletes’ voices in this coverage is troubling. Ideally, media members should make more intentional efforts to include college athletes’ perspectives when writing about policy issues that affect their lives. With numerous state laws concerning NIL poised to go into effect and the NCAA likely to take action soon, media consumers should think critically about the ways in which this issue is framed, specifically considering whose voices are included (and excluded) from the discussion.


Table: Most frequently quoted types of sources in media coverage of NIL rights and amateurism in college sport, January 2019-January 2021 (out of 113 articles examined)

Source quotedNumber of articles quotedFrequency
NCAA officials6759.3%
College athletic directors2623.0%
Athlete advocacy groups2623.0%
University administrators2017.7%
Former athletes1715.0%
College professors/historians1614.2%
College coaches87.1%
Current college athletes65.3%

Peyton Woods is a former Division I basketball player and recent graduate of the Recreation and Sport Management master’s degree program at the University of Tennessee. His research explores avenues to improve the care and well-being of student-athlete as well as the relationship between sport and religion across the globe.

Adam Love is an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies at the University of Tennessee. His research examines ways in which sport programs and organizations can operate in a more ethical, just, open, democratic, and accessible way. You can find him on Twitter @AdamWLove