From Nothing to NIL
Why CK Hoffler navigates the wild west of name-image-likeness law
Published in 2024 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
By Jim Walsh on February 7, 2024
For more than a century, the NCAA maintained the purity of college sports by ensuring that, in this increasingly lucrative field, athletes retained their amateur status by getting paid squat.
That all changed in a big way in June 2021, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in NCAA v. Alston that it is illegal for the NCAA to limit education-related payments to its students. Meaning NCAA athletes, some of whom are internationally known, can now profit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL, for short) via endorsement deals, business partnerships, paid social media posts, and more.
“It’s the wild, wild west,” says CK Hoffler. “It’s governed on a state-by-state basis because there are no federal rules or consistent rules throughout the nation governing NIL, so what happens in Georgia is going to be different from what happens in California or what happens in Minnesota.”
Hoffler, a commercial litigator who has represented the Rev. Jesse Jackson for decades, and chairs his Rainbow PUSH Coalition, got involved in the nascent practice area for personal reasons.
“I want to keep an eye on things for my children,” she says. “There really is nothing more important to me as a mother than protecting my children.”
Her children might not look like they need protection. Ozzie is a 234-pound linebacker at Georgia State, while his brother A.J. is a 250-pound defensive end at Clemson. But Hoffler was cognizant of the dangers of young people getting paid a lot of money.
“For the first time in my life, I am stepping in the same shoes as my clients,” she says. “The same shoes! Those mothers, those fathers, that’s me. They want to protect their children and may not know how. I just know how because I happen to be in the profession.”
Initially she was looking for another legal team to protect her kids. “And based on consultations with close friends and colleagues, they said, ‘Well, you’ve done commercial litigation and breach-of-contract and contract issues most of your career. Why don’t you do it?’”
So last July, she put together a team, now six members, to dive into the nascent practice of NIL law.
“This is contract negotiation work at its core,” says Hoffler, who lectures on trial strategy and technique, First Amendment matters, and employment discrimination. “It’s really utilizing the skill set of being able to negotiate contracts, understanding how to leverage position, and understanding how to be a fierce advocate on behalf of your client.”
There are a host of dangers to NIL law. Students, Hoffler says, “could put their scholarships in jeopardy. They could unknowingly give away their name, image and likeness in perpetuity. … Many of them don’t realize they have to pay taxes. There are real consequences to getting the kind of money that these athletes are now able to earn.”
Even so, Hoffler sees the change as a good thing for college athletes. “It’s about time that they’re able to benefit from their own name, image and likeness,” she says. “We used to have situations where athletes would sign jerseys and they couldn’t even afford their own jerseys. That was only a decade ago, two decades ago. And if you think about it, [the new NIL law] makes sense because these coaches want the athletes to have the right frame of mind to get out on the court or field or in the gym and do what they do best. If their minds are elsewhere because they don’t have enough to take care of their families, it can be problematic.”
Some athletes have already penned million-dollar endorsement deals, including Oklahoma/USC quarterback Caleb Williams; UConn basketball guard Paige Bueckers, and LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne. For others, says Hoffler, “There are these websites they can sign up on, and they’ll get $50 or $100 for signing an autograph.”
Hoffler doesn’t want to name the names of her clients. “We have a number of clients who signed up with us in anticipation of NIL deals, and we have clients who have come to us and who want us to strictly negotiate deals,” she says. “I’m doing a lot of speaking engagements with students and families. Part of this is really educating families on how to protect their children.”
No Matter What, No Matter Where
“Last weekend, I was in Columbia, South Carolina, for the University of South Carolina-Clemson game. Clemson won, and my son had an opportunity to play. It was something like 30 degrees outside—it was freezing! I had on five layers of clothing. … I stayed until 12:30 a.m. just to have the opportunity to hug my child after his game. As I ran to the shuttle bus to take me to my car, I had tears in my eyes—that I was able to share that with him and let him know that no matter what, no matter where, no matter how, I’m going to be there for him.” —CK Hoffler, November 2023
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