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Michigan State Varsity Athletes Face Hurdles In Inking NIL Deals

Mady Sissoko.png
Sarah Smith
Mady Sissoko celebrates with his teammates after a win over Kentucky.

Athletes come from around the world to go to school and play varsity sports for the Spartans. But that also comes with different rules because of their international status.

EAST LANSING, Mich. – The days of college athletes being unpaid for their talents are over, with Name, Image and Likeness laws (NIL) allowing them to financially capitalize on these newfound opportunities. But not all players are able to cash in on big deals.

According to the NCAA, there were over 20,000 international student-athletes that competed in athletics at NCAA schools in 2021. If the athletes are studying in the U.S. on an F1 student visa, which is the most common one, they are limited in how much outside money - like NIL - they can earn to stay legal.

Sarah Smith
Isaline Alexander celebrates in MSU victory over Michigan.

Michigan State athletes, such as Matilda Ekh (Sweden) and Isaline Alexander (Canada) on the women’s basketball team, understand the impact of these restrictions first-hand.

“There’s a limit on how much I can make in the U.S. and it’s pretty low,” said Ekh, a sophomore, is a native of Västerås, Sweden. “I have a student visa so I’m here to study, I’m not allowed to have a full-time job.”

Just because they are at Michigan State to further their academic and athletic careers doesn't mean that they wouldn’t like to earn the opportunities that the rest of their teammates are receiving.

Multiple MSU teams have signed group NIL deals with United Wholesale Mortgage, which includes every player on the football, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball teams. But international players, like Ekh and Alexander, are left off of these deals.

“It’s a great opportunity, but it just sucks that we can’t do it because of our visa,” Alexander said. “You hear our teammates talking about how they get $700 a month to do three [social media] posts and we’re sitting on the sidelines.”

Ekh added, “That’s money that I would definitely like to be a part of and a deal that I would like to be a part of.”

Players can earn NIL money when they are outside of the U.S. because the visa restrictions do not apply, but for these athletes there isn’t much time spent at home.

Matilda Ekh fires a three-pointer in an MSU loss against No. 10 Iowa.
Sarah Smith
Matilda Ekh fires a three-pointer in an MSU loss against No. 10 Iowa.

“We do have the opportunity to [earn NIL money] while we’re at home, however I’m home for like a month and a half in a whole year,” Alexander said. “Matilda is [home] even less because she’s in Sweden, so our chances and opportunities are a lot more limited.”

International players can be left with many questions as NIL guidelines are still a new frontier in the college sports world.

“I’ve thought about this a lot,” Alexander said. “Constantly trying to find out what I can do to try and participate in it while also not breaking the rules.”

While all international players are still unable to earn money for themselves from NIL deals, some players, like MSU men’s basketball center Mady Sissoko, have found a way to help despite the restrictions.

The Mady Sissoko Foundation has allowed the money that would have gone to Sissoko in a normal NIL situation to go towards a good cause, even though he can not earn the money himself due to the visa restrictions.

“My whole journey here playing basketball has been hopefully one day giving back.” Sissoko said. “The NIL deal is going to help me already give back, even though I’m not making anything right now.”

Sissoko came to the U.S. in 2016 from his hometown of Bafoulabé, Mali. He grew up as the youngest of 10 children in a household of over 40 people. Seven years after Sissoko left Bafoulabé, the foundation that he created is helping build a new school for the village.

“It’s a big deal over there,” Sissoko said. “The whole village is excited about it and they can’t wait to start it. Everybody is willing to help put in the work… We also want to build a well and give [the village] clean water. I’m excited about it.”

While there is definitely room for change within the NIL regulations among international players, the only thing on Sissoko’s mind is helping those around him.

“I haven’t really thought about that because for my NIL money, I just want to give back and help them,” Sissoko said. “I’m here now and I have opportunities like this. The only thing I’m thinking about if I get an NIL deal is that I just want to give back.”

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