BYU Cougars sponsor offers to cover tuition for walk-on members of football team

The BYU athletic department helped broker opportunities for every walk-on member of the football team to sign endorsement deals with a sponsor that would cover the cost of their tuition for at least one year.

The arrangement -- which is possible due to recent NCAA rule changes that allow college athletes to make money from their names, images and likenesses (NIL) -- was announced during a team meeting this week. All 123 members of the Cougars football program were offered an endorsement deal with protein bar company Built Brands.

Scholarship players can receive $1,000 each for representing the company. The 36 walk-on players on the roster were offered what amounts to privately funded scholarships, although the players will be paid directly and can spend that money in any way they choose, according to associate athletic director Gary Veron.

"We're trying to put BYU on the map for all the right reasons," said Veron, who helps coordinate the department's new NIL program for athletes. "We knew this would be exciting to be kind of the first ones to the dance in this area."

Veron told ESPN that the school's compliance staff and lawyers made sure that the blanket offer to players from a company that is also a sponsor of the athletic department did not violate any of the NCAA's new rules.

In the lead-up to rule changes this summer, NCAA leaders proposed restrictions that would have prevented a school from facilitating deals on behalf of its players or from allowing players to sign deals with a company that also had a business partnership with the school. The NCAA was prompted to revise its long-held amateurism rules by July 1 by a swath of new laws in more than a dozen states that outlaw the organization's old restrictions on players making money. Due to legal concerns, the NCAA opted not to enforce many restrictions and instead took an uncharacteristically hands-off approach to regulating the new marketplace for college athlete endorsements.

In states that don't have NIL laws, the NCAA told each school to come up with its own policy with the loose guideline of making sure athletes weren't accepting money as a recruiting inducement or as "pay for play," both of which remain violations of NCAA policy. As a result, some of the states that spurred the change have laws that are now more restrictive and prescriptive than the NCAA's rules. Utah does not have a state law. In several states, the arrangement made by BYU on behalf of its players would be illegal.

"We feel blessed because we don't have a state law on the books," Veron said.

Athletes are required to provide some service or quid pro quo to show that the payments they are receiving are not just for their athletic performance. BYU football players will earn their sponsorship money by wearing the Built Brands logo on their practice helmets and by attending at least one "experiential event" with the company this year.

Walk-ons, because they are receiving more money, have to attend two such events and promote the company on social media as well. Veron said that while BYU helped set up the deal, Built is paying the players directly.

Veron said BYU did not consult with NCAA officials to make sure it wasn't stepping over any loosely defined lines. An NCAA spokesperson did not respond to questions about the deal.

"This is new terrain for everybody," Veron said. "The NCAA has been withdrawn in terms of guidance. I'm hoping they stay out of this place completely."

The deals for each player are scheduled to last one year. Built Brands has not committed to repeating the same offer next year, but Veron said he doesn't think the company will stop in the future. Built also signed a new multiyear sponsorship with the school.

Head coach Kalani Sitake said he was overcome by emotion after discussing the arrangement with Built CEO Nick Greer.

"I love these boys," Sitake said in a statement, "and I am overwhelmed with gratitude to be partnering with a company that is equally committed to assisting BYU football in building a culture of love and learning while enhancing the experience for all players."

Sitake and Greer plan to speak more about the first-of-its-kind partnership during a news conference Friday.