The NIL King's Clash with Congress

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Chase Griffin's walk into the Rayburn House Office Building to sit before Congress felt a bit like walking into UCLA's Rose Bowl Stadium. He registered a familiar pang of anxiousness, not panic-inducing - he was too prepared to panic - but a signal he was sharp. It was his game day.

The only difference is that he usually gets more shut-eye before a game.

Griffin arrived at LAX the night before, fresh off a day of classes and UCLA's voluntary team workouts, only to find that his cross-country flight to Washington D.C. was delayed. The airline didn't know it was transporting the first active college football player to testify before Congress on Name, Image, and Likeness. Bloomberg dubbed him "the undisputed king of NIL endorsement deals," but that didn't mean private jet status. Yet. So the "king" and his proverbial crown, bedecked with Degree, Shell, and Discord logos, landed on Capitol Hill at 2 a.m.

Now, he was facing Congress on three hours of sleep, ready to verbally spar for his and every other athlete's right to continue monetizing their name, image, and likeness in a free market. Across the aisle was NCAA president Charlie Baker, pushing for an antitrust exemption to protect his organization from the mountains of litigation against it and a guarantee that athletes cannot be considered employees. At question - the "FAIR College Sports Act," introduced by Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R - Fla.), which would do all that for the NCAA and more, including a ban on boosters and third-party collectives from offering pay-to-play for a school, stringent disclosure requirements from businesses for NIL deals and additional federal oversight to reign in the Wild West of NIL.

"I think this is the last frontier where the NCAA feels like they can reclaim some sort of control in the way they had it in the past," Griffin said.

Griffin is the embodiment of the entrepreneurial athlete berthed by NIL legislation. At the ripe age of 23, he's old enough to have bridged a generation. He arrived at UCLA pre-NIL and as the Gatorade Texas Player of the Year after throwing for 10,000 yards in his Hutto High School career. Nearly six years later, Griffin has more endorsement deals than career touchdown passes (6) and is working on his second master's degree in legal studies.

That's why Rep. Lori Trahan (D - Mass.) invited him to testify.

Griffin supported her and Chris Murphy's (D - Conn.) "College Athlete Economic Freedom Act," establishing unrestricted federal right for college athletes to market and monetize their name, image, and likeness. NIL changed Griffin's life, and he's become its champion in the face of what he views is the government and NCAA trying to turn the money faucet back into more of a dribble.

"There's still been a large misjudgment in the allocation of which perspectives are valuable in the space," Griffin said. "College athletes have, over time, again and again, been left out of conversations that affect their lives directly."

In fact, only 5 percent of stories written about NIL have an actual quote from a college athlete. So, Griffin founded The Athlete's Bureau two months ago, a publication owned and operated by collegiate athletes for collegiate athletes. In his written testimony to Congress, he submitted polling of college athletes that The Athlete's Bureau conducted with the Gen Z polling firm Generation Lab, showing athletes are not getting Lamborghini money but savings for a down payment on their first house or investments. Moreover, NIL has allowed college kids to gain business and financial literacy.

The "FAIR College Sports Act," he wrote, would stifle this by requiring businesses to pay registration fees and adhere to monthly reporting requirements with the threat of FTC sanctions. 

"Right now, congress and the media have been sort of in an echo chamber of NCAA-based terminology of protecting athletes from ourselves," Griffin said. "However, keeping us blind, deaf and dumb, from how the business world works while we're in college is not protection. It's not empowerment. It promotes ignorance."

To be clear, Baker and the NCAA are only partially aligned with Bilirakis's proposal because it would overlap the federal bureaucracy with the NCAA's administrative process. Baker unveiled the "Project DI" proposal on December 5, which would create a new subdivision within Division I athletics that schools could opt into, which would require each school to invest $30,000 per athlete into an enhanced educational trust fund and, in turn, allow the schools to enter NIL agreements directly with students. These schools in the new subdivision would also have no limits on how many scholarships they can give and coaches they can hire. Essentially, the programs with the most money and biggest brands operate within a different set of rules.

But while Baker commended Griffin as the gold standard of NIL, he's pushing for more federal oversight to regulate the bad actors. And that's what Griffin touched down in D.C. to fight against. Let the free market weed out the bad apples; don't kneecap athletes' financial prospects. He hopes Congress will abstain from the NIL space altogether.

Griffin flew back to Los Angeles hours after the hearing, returning to prepare for his sixth collegiate football season while chasing his third degree. It took less than 24 hours in the nation's capital to create a monumental event for himself and college athletics that he'll cherish forever. Griffin left Hutto High School as an 18-year-old kid dreaming of starring as a Power Five quarterback. He'll leave UCLA as a 24-year-old who's set the standard for all the good NIL can do, then fought for what he believes gives others the same opportunity. A different impact and legacy than he pictured initially, but one just as meaningful.

And, in hindsight, he was preparing for this spokesman role throughout his historic high school career. The "NIL King" resides in California today but hails from Hutto, where he was molded to speak for a town and a team.

"Growing up as a quarterback in Texas, you're expected to be that voice for your team," Griffin said. "And for a town like Hutto, I was expected to be the voice of the town, and that was since I was starting at 15. I'm almost a decade into the game as far as being someone who has to speak well to the media."

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