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CHAMPAIGN — Historic.

That’s the word that got repeated over and over on Tuesday afternoon at State Farm Center.

By Gov. J.B. Pritzker. By state Rep. and former Illini football player Kam Buckner, D-Chicago.

By Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman and his cohorts from DePaul and Northwestern.

At about 12:50 p.m., Pritzker made it legal for athletes to capitalize financially on their name, image and likeness.

Starting Thursday, college athletes in Illinois will be allowed to endorse products and appear in ads for businesses.

It is a dramatic change for college sports. And a necessary change for college sports.

In the past, athletes were discouraged from even mentioning a favorite pizza place or car dealership.

Now, it is OK to be brand specific.

Some limits are in place. For instance, you won’t see the athletes, even those of legal drinking age, working for alcohol companies. And a school that has a sponsorship deal with a particular apparel maker or soft-drink company can prevent athletes from endorsing a rival business. So, Coke school Illinois doesn’t have to worry about a Pepsi commercial featuring a member of the basketball or wrestling teams.

What took so long?

It is 2021. College athletics have been played in the U.S. for more than a century.

During that time, college were allowed to tout their teams and their athletes. They bragged about the accomplishments on the courts and fields.

The attention helped push college admission rates and donations. All good for Big State U.

But the athletes weren’t given a cut beyond free schooling. And, of course, that is worth a lot. I’ve got one child in college and another on the way this fall. Tuition, room and board and fees are pricey.

The difference between the typical student and a college athlete comes down to time.

Imagine being expected to excel as a full-time student while also working another full-time job.

That’s what sports have become. Technically, athletes aren’t supposed to be involved in their sport more than 20 hours a week during the season. Realistically, they spend so much more time than that. They keep in shape, have meetings, study film, etc.

Even when it is considered voluntary, there is an expectation the work will be done.

We live in a country full of ultra-achievers. If you aren’t trying to improve, you are losing ground to everyone else.

When I first started covering Illinois sports in 1989, many athletes would go home for the summer and get jobs while hanging out with their families.

Those days are long gone. Sure, they might take a short break or two but it is mostly a 12-month operation.

Athletes good enough to play at the next level will realize college was simply part of the preparation. Once they get a check from an NFL or NBA team, the time commitment climbs. There are no more classes to attend. It becomes a full-time job with a short career span.

Pro athletes have always been able to capitalize on their name, image and likeness.

Michael Jordan became a household name first because of his basketball ability. Nike, Gatorade, Hanes and “Space Jam” took his notoriety to another level.

The historic NIL law signed by the Illinois governor on Tuesday, won’t instantly create another Jordan.

It will, however, bring fairness to a system that for too long favored the programs and didn’t do nearly enough for the athletes involved.

Danger zones

Concern lingers from some that the NIL legislation will ruin college sports. Or give certain programs in bigger markets an unfair advantage.

Can’t we see how it works before screaming “the sky is falling!”

There is no reason to overreact until we see evidence of unfairness.

It makes sense to me that businesses in college communities will want to support athletes from their local school. That’s a good instinct that doesn’t have to immediately be met with suspicion.

Perhaps what will happen is that money from a car dealership that would have normally gone to a coach will now be spent on athletes instead.

I’m good with that.

You mean we might see less of Nick Saban on Aflac commercials? Just a hunch his bank account will handle the hit.

One potential problem for the media is that college athletes could demand pay to do interviews. But that doesn’t happen in the pros and won’t in college, either.

A newspaper story or radio/TV interview is a chance for the athletes to enhance their brand and marketability.

Nothing better than free publicity from the free press.

Check “pay to talk” off the worry list.

Will there be some problems with the new law? Absolutely. Currently, only a handful of states have laws on the books with more on the way.

It might have been better had national legislation been passed with the backing/advice of the NCAA.

It didn’t happen, so the states are taking proactive action. Nobody wants to get left behind, which could harm their athletes and programs.

We will see tweaks in the coming days, months and years. It is important to accept it won’t be perfect on the first day.

But let’s be real: This is a new day for college athletics. And that’s good news.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

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