University of Maine wide receiver Andre Miller hurdles a defender during a March game against Stony Brook University. Miller was one of his school's first athletes to be compensated under a landmark NCAA rules change that a Maine lawmaker wants to enshrine in state law. Credit: Ronnie Gillis / UMaine Athletics

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine would guarantee its college athletes wide authority to pursue sponsorships under a measure to be considered by lawmakers in 2022 on the heels of a shift that is reshaping sports.

The NCAA moved in June to lift its long-held ban on athletes being paid for endorsements or appearances, allowing nearly 480,000 athletes at colleges large and small to finally use their platforms or social media followings to make money. It came as laws in 10 states looking to erode that much-maligned ban were going into effect.

Big-name athletes at top programs are predictably benefiting most and Maine’s relatively small schools are unlikely to see huge deals for now. But experts said programs here could have an edge on those in states making more restrictive laws if the Legislature adopts a bill from Sen. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, that would effectively house the new NCAA rule in state law.

“You can’t be sure that this right will always be protected and that’s why I wanted to put this into statute,” said Luchini, who was a nine-time All-American distance runner for Stanford University in California. “The NCAA has been wrong on this issue forever.”

It would put Maine among a majority of states to make laws around the NCAA’s so-called “name, image and likeness” — or NIL — rule. Nearly all look to restrict it in some way, including those in 14 states prohibiting college athletes from promoting certain industries including alcohol or firearms, according to MultiState, a lobbying firm tracking these laws for sports clients.

Luchini’s measure is unique in that it contains no restrictions. It would ensure that colleges cannot prohibit athletes from being compensated or retaining lawyers or agents. If the NCAA shifted policy, it would also not be able to bar Maine schools from competition just because team members have NIL deals.

It dovetails with the University of Maine’s liberal NIL policy. Athletes are not allowed to use university logos, facilities or support staff to make money. But they are barred only from promoting illegal products or activities and must clear deals with core athletic sponsors — including New Balance and Bangor Savings Bank — with administrators.

Since UMaine is the only school in the state to compete at the Division I level, Maine’s NIL activity is concentrated in Orono. Twelve athletes have told UMaine they are pursuing deals, spokesperson Tyson McHatten said. The first two — football wide receiver Andre Miller and field hockey forward Brooke Sulinski — partnered with a Bangor supplement company.

“Our priority is to provide our students with every possible avenue to explore and grow their personal brands,” said McHatten. “We consider it part of the educational process.”

Top programs have quickly embraced NIL deals. In July, Alabama football coach Nick Saban told Texas high-school coaches that sophomore quarterback Bryce Young was nearing an “ungodly” $1 million in deals before even starting a game en route to his Heisman Trophy-winning season.

Young is an outlier. Most make relatively little on NIL deals, according to data from Opendorse, an online platform that tracks deals, with Division I athletes making $1,200 on average from July through November. In lower divisions, athletes made $75 or less on average.

Proponents of the shift have argued that coaches and programs who rake in massive amounts should share with players who can get nothing. Critics have worried that big-money deals will lead athletes to make strictly financial decisions about where to play. The rules may reinforce familiar inequities, with Opendorse finding nearly 7 in 10 athletes with deals were men.

But it stands to reason that schools taking an active role in helping athletes cash in will fare better in recruiting. States that take relatively hands-off approaches to regulating the NIL market will help their schools in the long run, said Norm O’Reilly, the dean of UMaine’s graduate business school and a sports management professor.

“There’s nothing in there that an athlete or their lawyer or their parents … would look at and say, ‘Well, that’s a concern,’” he said of Luchini’s bill.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...