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On the outskirts: International athletes can't capitalize on new NIL opportunities

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On the outskirts: International athletes can't capitalize on new NIL opportunities
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When news broke that the NCAA made history adopting an interim policy allowing college athletes to make money off of their name, image and likeness on June 30, Missouri track and field athlete Atina Kamasi was excited. This had been a deal that college athletes have been waiting on for decades, and the opportunities seemed to be endless.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s amazing for so many people.’ You know, a lot of international students are in different situations,” Kamasi said. “And then I go to compliance. So, they’re like, ‘No, you can’t do anything with it.’ I was like, ‘What?’ ”

Serbian javelin thrower Atina Kamasi is advocating for the use of her name image and likeness

Serbian javelin thrower Atina Kamasi is advocating for the right to profit off of use of her name, image and likeness (NIL) as an international student and athlete at MU. The new NCAA policy interferes with regulations on international student visas.

The compliance information that Kamasi and other international athletes received told them that the new changes would interfere with a regulation on their student visas. Therefore, all international athletes are not allowed to make money off of their name, image and likeness (NIL).

Immigration lawyer Mihaela Britt, who has over 17 years of experience working with international students, knows the ins and outs when it comes to the visa process for international athletes. Typically, international athletes come to the U.S. on an F-1 student visa, which defines them as a nonimmigrant who is pursuing a full course of study to achieve a specific educational or professional objective at an institution designated by the Department of Homeland Security. Within the F-1 visa are restrictions regarding the amount and types of employment an international student can obtain while in the U.S..

“As the purpose of an F-1 visa is to go to school, international students are usually allowed to work on campus during the semester up to 20 hours per week and can work more than 20 during official school breaks,” Britt said in email correspondence. “In order for an international student to be employed by an organization outside their school, they will need special permission in form of a work authorization that can be authorized by the school in certain conditions or by United States Citizenship and Immigration.”

These “strict” regulations, as Britt put it, not only hold back athletes from the NIL changes, but also the possibility of more income.

MU tennis player Vivien Abraham knows this all to well, as she started working the summer before her senior year. She spent three years of college without a job while in Missouri, only working two months back home in Hungary the summer of her freshman year.

Hungarian tennis player Vivien Abraham is impacted by the immigration regulations

Hungarian tennis player Vivien Abraham is affected by immigration regulations and cannot start her own business under the OPT visa while at MU.

Between practice, workouts and school, "I don’t think I could even work 10 hours a week if I wanted to,” Abraham said.

The limitations for work aren’t only focused on how much students work, but it can also affect the jobs international students can have after they graduate. If they choose to stay in the U.S., they are only allowed to find jobs that are specific to their major. Graduates are given the opportunity to work for one year in the U.S. through an Optional Practical Training visa.

The immigration rules are written with the focus that these students are only here for their studies. While considered standard practice and helpful to keep international students focused, the heavy regulations are creating a gray area.

“I’m a journalism major, so I can do anything that’s like advertising-media-journalism-related, right, but if I’m passionate about something — like I’m interested in nutrition, (in) eventually becoming a dietitian, I cannot start my own business under the OPT visa,” Abraham said. “How many people know at age of 18 what they want to become? It’s just kind of taking away that freedom.”

While resident athletes found themselves in the same boat, not having the time to even add a job to their busy schedules, the NIL change was a turning point.

“International students, being athletes or not being athletes, bring billions of dollars into (the) economy,” Kamasi said. “So to have the restrictions that we do, it’s just kind of — it can be a lot. One of the things that I have to think about on a daily basis are the things I can or can’t do.”

As their fellow athletes, such as offensive lineman Drake Heismeyer, rake in NIL deals one after the other, international athletes would be running the risk of deportation if they tried their luck as brand ambassadors. There are more than 2,000 international students at MU, and a number of them are spread out throughout athletics.

Britt has kept her ear to the streets to see if there is a way to get international students paid through NIL. The key is categorization.

“If the activity is considered to be ‘employment,’ even as self-employment, it will fall under F-1 student status rules,” Britt said. “Could the payment related to NIL be considered to be a passive income payment, or could the NIL be seen as intellectual property? At this time, I have not seen any direct guidance from USCIS (Citizenship and Immigration Services) or Student or Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), the two main agencies who implement the law related to international students.”

The Department of Homeland Security is still unsure of what the NIL changes will mean for international athletes under federal immigration law. It is considering factors such as the nature of the NIL activities, the student’s immigration status and the specific provisions of state, federal and NCAA rules. In the meantime, all international athletes like Kamasi and Abraham can do is wait.

“I mean, it just feels sad. You just feel like everybody’s so excited about it, especially when we’re like really in the midst of it mid-summer,” Kamasi said. “Everybody’s kind of jumping on it. And you’re just standing aside and watching as things kind of pass by you.”

Atina Kamasi practices throwing a javelin with her coach Brett Halter and MU team

Atina Kamasi practices throwing a javelin with her coach Brett Halter and MU team Nov. 16 at the Audrey J. Walton Stadium in Columbia.  

This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.

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