March 21, 2023 

International players at UConn face NIL obstacles

'It's a lot bigger than anybody playing basketball'

STORRS — With twenty seconds left in the third quarter of the UConn-Villanova Big East Tournament title game, UConn’s Nika Mühl was knocked to the ground defending Villanova’s Christina Dalce in the lane. Mühl was whistled for a questionable foul, and the junior point guard, as she is sometimes known to do, thew her hands up in dismay and glared at the referee. The UConn-heavy crowd at Mohegan Sun instantly leapt to Mühl’s defense, erupting in boos as Dalce stepped to the line. Dalce missed both free throws, Mühl clapped, and a fan behind me quipped, with emphasis, “yup, don’t mess with our girl.”

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The state of Connecticut has embraced Mühl, along with her five fellow international teammates, as their own. The commercial college sports landscape in the nearly billion-dollar NIL industry, on the other hand, has largely excluded them.

The reason? They aren’t U.S. citizens.  

UConn’s Nika Mühl drives past Marquette’s Jordan King. Photo Credit: UConn WBB Twitter

The International Student Athlete’s NIL Problem

In July 2021, following the Supreme Court’s decision in NCAA v. Alston, the NCAA issued interim guidance suspending rules that previously restricted athletes from receiving compensation based on commercial use of their name, image and likeness (known as “NIL”).

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The intended consequence was transformative for college athletics – student athletes could finally profit off themselves, in an industry that had profited off their backs for years. But the unintended consequence for international athletes was far less favorable.

Although the NCAA initially claimed that international student athletes could benefit from NIL, that has not proven true under federal immigration laws. Most international student-athletes are on F-1 student visas, which are governed by federal regulations that prohibit those visa-holders from working in exchange for compensation, except under very limited circumstances. International players can, for instance, work on campus for 20 hours or less in fall and spring semesters or full-time during break at on-campus businesses, like bookstores, that provide services to students. Students can also work in curricular practical training, provided the training is both an integral part of an established curriculum and directly related to a student’s major area of study. But these limited circumstances do not fit neatly in the typical NIL sponsorship or endorsement arrangement, which generally does not take place on campus or otherwise pertain to a student’s field of study.

The result is that international student athletes have been left in legal limbo, unable to benefit from NIL opportunities absent clear federal guidance to the contrary or regulatory changes, which have not been forthcoming to date.

That legal gray area has made testing the waters in the NIL space for international players exceedingly difficult. Any school’s international student and scholar service office is required by law to report confirmed violations of a student’s F-1 visa to the Department of Homeland Security. Amy Maldonado, am immigration attorney who represents international student athletes in NIL opportunities, told The Next that the risks of engaging in unauthorized work for NIL opportunities could prove dire, and potentially include visa cancelation or placement in deportation proceedings.

UConn’s International Players Find On Court Success, But Lack Equal Off Court NIL Opportunities

When NIL became permissible it was widely anticipated that disparities in college sports would follow, including among players on the same team who might command more profitability than others. So far, that has proven true. But for international players, the legal barriers have prevented them from fully engaging in the NIL market, even if that market wants to invest in them.

Those differences have been on display at UConn, perhaps more so than any other team in college basketball this season.

UConn has six international players on its roster in Mühl (Croatia), Aaliyah Edwards (Canada), Lou Lopez Sénéchal (France, originally from Mexico), Dorka Juhász (Hungary), Jana El Alfy (Egypt) and Inês Bettencourt (Portugal). Details concerning an individual student’s visa status are not typically subject to public disclosure. However, there have been reports that UConn’s international players are on student visas and cannot otherwise directly participate in NIL opportunities, and there is nothing public to date to suggest differently.

Mühl, Edwards, Sénéchal and Juhász have been the backbone of UConn’s team this season, starting nearly every game and each averaging more minutes than any one of their American teammates. While a black cloud hovered over Storrs for much of the season raining endless injuries, UConn’s international players helped carry the team to a No. 6 ranking in the AP Top 25 Poll and No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Edwards, Mühl and Sénéchal each received AP All American honors, with Edwards named as a Third Team All-American. Although she did not receive AP honors, Juhász notably averaged a double-double on the season.

Edwards is the sole international player among the AP All American Teams, the Naismith national player of the year semifinalists and the candidates for the Wooden Award. Assuming Edwards maintains a student visa, that effectively makes her the only player in the national player of the year conversation who cannot take advantage of major NIL opportunities. Mühl, for her part, has similarly stood out on a national scale, at times leading the nation in assists and even breaking Sue Bird’s historic single season program assist record. She is currently the sole international player among the Nancy Lieberman point guard of the year candidates. Mühl’s international status, which she recently indicated has led her to question what she can and cannot do in the NIL space, also likely makes her the only player on that list who cannot take advantage of her on-court success in traditional off-court NIL deals.

No other Division 1 college women’s basketball team has climbed to those heights this season with the same quantity of, or contributions from, international players on the roster.

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Take those collective and individual achievements, and multiply them by the high-profile market the UConn women play in, which extends well beyond Storrs. UConn generates the most interactions on official team social media accounts in college women’s basketball by a landslide. When it comes to NIL, those clicks are money in the bank.

UConn’s matchup against South Carolina in February was the most watched women’s college basketball game in history on FOX, and up until the point South Carolina played LSU days later, was also the most watched game on any network since 2017.

Against that lucrative backdrop – and propelled by their own on-court accomplishments – UConn’s domestic players have found success. Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd have inked deals with major brands like Nerf, Bose, the Curry Brand, Buick, BioSteel, TikTok, Gatorade and Crocs, and that’s just the top of their portfolios. Forbes estimated in early 2022 that Bueckers alone was just a few deals away from reaching $1 million in endorsements. UConn sophomore guard Caroline Ducharme has also signed deals with Degree, Great Clips and Bumble, while junior forward Aubrey Griffin recently posted an ad for Powerade. Once March Madness hit, Bueckers, Fudd, Ducharme and Griffin were actively promoting their NIL endorsements and sponsorships on social media.

Their international teammates, by contrast, have remained silent.

The differences extend beyond potential earnings. International women’s college basketball players across the country currently lack the full range of options that NIL now affords domestic players when it comes to weighing the pros and cons of pursuing opportunities in the WNBA.  

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The base first year salaries for rookie contracts in the WNBA range from just $57,000-$68,000, while draft picks 1-4 are capped at $76,297 by their third season of play. Those numbers have already led domestic players with NIL deals to choose to exercise extra years of eligibility over professional opportunities. Tennessee’s Tamari Key recently announced that she is returning for a fifth year, citing the positive impacts that NIL has had on her college career and her belief that the WNBA does not guarantee what she dubbed as a “reasonable, livable” salary for rookies.

In a world where a spot on the highly competitive rosters of the WNBA’s 12 teams is far from guaranteed, international women’s players lack that particular degree of choice.

The sum of the above is this: UConn’s international players are dominating on the biggest stage in women’s basketball, in a market with more eyes on them than maybe anywhere else in the country, but cannot capitalize on that opportunity in the same way that players born with two feet on American soil can.

UConn’s NIL Store Enters the Chat

In June 2022, UConn released a statement assuring that the school would “exhaust every avenue, within the guidelines of immigration laws, to allow international student-athletes inclusion in the same NIL opportunities as their domestic teammates.”

No school has independently found a way to afford international student-athletes the same NIL opportunities that domestic players have. Nor could any do so, because the potential solution to this problem is in the hands of federal regulatory regimes that transcend any one school’s say over the matter.

Even so, UConn has been aggressive in pushing the envelope further than most, which recently resulted in a way for its international players to enjoy the fruits of the NIL market without actively participating in it. 

In January 2023, the UConn NIL store, powered by Campus Ink, officially launched. Campus Ink, which is backed by multi-million-dollar investments by Mark Cuban, developed an online platform where college athletes can profit from NIL through the sale of apparel that Campus Ink designs. The company obtained licenses from 20 schools, including UConn, and has launched online NIL marketplaces that sell officially licensed jerseys and apparel for student athletes.

Adam Cook, Campus Ink’s NIL Director, told The Next that Campus Ink’s student athletes “earn anywhere from $6-$15 per item sold” on any school’s NIL store.

UConn’s NIL store features merchandise for every player on the women’s basketball team, including jerseys and limited release merchandise for the international players in particular. When the store initially launched merchandise for UConn’s international players, fans questioned whether those players could receive profits, and Campus Ink responded on social media by confirming that “[a]ll athletes receive commissions from their merch sold on our platform, including international students.” 

Cook explained that the company generally utilizes group licensing agreements that allow international athletes to opt-in to passively receive profits from merchandise sales, without any active participation, promotion, or sponsorship of any kind done by the athletes themselves.

“As it relates to international student athletes, we want to be really transparent, clear of what they can and cannot do,” Cook said. “A lot of times an international athlete taking active participation in NIL stuff, we don’t want to jeopardize their eligibility or their visas at all, and that is where the group licensing route can provide a good opportunity.”

Although Campus Ink could not disclose the terms of its agreements with any of UConn’s players, a source familiar with the legal situation at UConn confirmed to The Next that any profits derived by international student athletes who opt-in to the sale of merchandise on the UConn NIL Store are interpreted by the school as passive income and not active work, and would not run afoul of any F-1 visa employment prohibitions.

Maldonado agreed. “There’s no prohibition on receiving money from sales, the prohibition is on working,” Maldonado said. “We all agree that there are certain things that are clearly ok . . . where the players are not taking any action of any kind, they’re not promoting it, they’re not posting, the university is marketing and giving them a cut, that is 100% fine.”

To date, none of UConn’s international players have publicly promoted merchandise available on the NIL store. But the school has taken an active role in doing so across its official accounts, as have UConn’s domestic players.

Campus Ink does not reveal amounts that its athletes have earned off merchandise sales. When it comes to the UConn women, however, Cook pointed out that they are the only women’s basketball team on Campus Ink’s platform to sell out their entire inventory of jerseys.

As the Hartford Courant also reported, UConn has established partnerships with other online merchandise platforms, including Athlete’s Thread and Breaking T, which have similarly promoted apparel for UConn’s international players.

So, while it may be unlikely that earnings from the UConn NIL Store or similar ventures are comparable to those that could be gained from major NIL sponsorships or endorsements, the needle has moved, ever so slightly, in the right direction. And the players have felt that change.

“Obviously when the NIL started, we were kind of hoping that we’re going to be included,” UConn forward Dorka Juhász told The Next. “And we know that UConn is always working for us and they’re trying to fight for change. They say it’s going to come – who knows when, but I know that they’re fighting for us. They’re trying to find ways for us to capitalize on that.”

What Does the Future Hold for International Players?

There is no imminent regulatory change on the horizon for international student athletes when it comes to NIL. The Next spoke with several immigration attorneys who specialize in NIL issues, and none of them were able to definitively identify if, much less when, international student athletes will be able to enjoy the same NIL rights as their domestic counterparts. There are no shortage of reasons for this.

The international student athlete’s NIL problem, while felt acutely by those it impacts, ultimately affects a minority of college athletes. Roughly 12% of NCAA college athletes consist of international students. That figure makes it difficult to command the attention of federal legislators who have the power to invoke change, particularly when any changes in immigration policies are almost always met with political divide.

Following UConn’s 95-52 rout of Vermont in the first round of the NCAA tournament, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma also pointed out that the restrictions on international athletes apply to all students. “That’s a federal law that applies to any kid that goes to college or any kid that comes to this country on a student visa. So it’s a lot bigger than anybody playing basketball,” he said.

For that reason, it remains difficult to imagine how the federal government could create a carve-out that would allow international college athletes to profit through use of their name, image and likeness, without also changing the rules for all students on F-1 visas, which is a more considerable endeavor.

If you ask Auriemma whether he thinks the rules will change, he says he “doubts it.” But the one thing that is clear is that schools, and the lawyers who represent international players, are willing to creatively forge ahead.   

Auriemma noted that there are “work visas to come to America, which are very difficult to obtain.” Some attorneys, however, are pursuing them anyway for college athletes.

Maldonado and fellow immigration attorney Ksenia Maiorova, for instance, are actively exploring options to obtain work visas for international student athletes that would permit them to benefit from NIL in the same way that international players can. The categories of work visas vary, and those conceivably on the table for NCAA athletes consist of O-1 visas awarded to individuals with extraordinary abilities or achievements, or P-1 visas for athletes with internationally recognized levels of sustained performance. Maldonado recently obtained an O-1 visa for Northwestern State freshman guard Hansel Enmanuel, a one-armed basketball player from the Dominican Republican, which now allows him to profit off his NIL. According to Maldonado, however, O-1 visas are extraordinarily difficult to obtain.

While there have been no reported instances of international college athletes obtaining professional visas, UConn Athletic Director David Benedict hinted on Twitter that the option is on UConn’s radar. “We need to get the law changed or provide them the opportunity to get the same type of visa a professional athlete receives,” he tweeted.

As another option, Auriemma pointed out that his international players can explore NIL opportunities if they are not in the United States. “[T]hey can take advantage of it. They just can’t do it while they’re in the United States. So if they’re in Canada or if they’re in some other country, while they’re playing for us, they can take advantage of all those things,” Auriemma said. The Kentucky men’s basketball team took advantage of that option for international star Oscar Tshiebwe by playing a tournament in the Bahamas, where Tshiebwe did promotional work that reportedly netted him $500,000 in a week.

All things considered, international players on student visas will not enjoy the full range of NIL opportunities absent federal regulatory changes or changes to their visa status. For now, UConn’s international players remain focused on the options available to them. “We came here to play basketball and get our education,” Juhász said, noting that anything more than that “would just be an extra.”

Juhász is now in her final year of college eligibility. The window of opportunity for Juhász to discover what the totality of that “extra” could have been has effectively closed. That doesn’t mean she’s not hopeful, though, for those international players who might come after her.

“[H]opefully for obviously not me, but for the future international student athletes that come to the United States that hopefully they can find a way for them to capitalize in some ways, you know.”

Written by Gabriella Levine

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