SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — In the summer of 2021, Sydney Stephens’ entire experience as a college athlete changed.

She was coming off her freshman season for the Illinois soccer team. Suddenly, like every other athlete in the country, she could profit from her name, image and likeness.

“NIL is a game-changer,” Stephens said.

It wasn’t easy, though. State law made it so the university couldn’t help her find endorsement deals. She was on her own.

“It does get a little bit hard when you are the student athlete, and you are going out to try and get the things,” Stephens said. “Not all the companies are coming to you, especially for non-revenue sports.”

The state laws around the newly-formed market put Illinois universities at a competitive disadvantage on the recruiting trail, but it wasn’t by design.

Illinois lawmakers passed a law in 2021 that openly defied NCAA rules, allowing athletes in the state to profit off endorsements. The group behind the bill thought they were putting Illinois at the forefront of the NIL trend.

And they did — for a day.

One day after Governor Pritzker signed the bill, the NCAA lifted all of their amateurism rules. It was a free for all. The NCAA guidelines say for states without laws, it’s up to the universities to determine the rules for their players making deals. 

Now Illinois has restrictions in place that other states don’t, all but eliminating the recruiting advantage the lawmakers envisioned.

“We were not able to facilitate a transaction,” Kam Cox with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign said. “It was really very glitchy in terms of how you can go about it.”  

The U of I hired Cox in June to guide the INFLUENCE program — a resource to help the 550 Illini athletes navigate the NIL space.

“The NIL experience is becoming an essential part of the whole student-athlete packages being offered in different places,” Cox said.

It didn’t take lawmakers in the Capitol long to correct this unintended consequence. They passed a bill to allow universities to act as athlete’s agents, and find NIL deals on their behalf.

“With this new law, Illinois is now remaining more competitive with other states and other universities across the country,” Senator Napoleon Harris (D-Dolton) said. “I see this as evening the playing field.” 

Illinois is following other states like Kentucky, Virginia, and South Carolina in removing this restriction.

“Once that is finally lifted, we’re going to be in a great spot to create more opportunity for our young people,” Cox said.   

While Stephens may not be making as big of deals as star U of I football or basketball players, she’s still found it rewarding to work with several local apparel companies, even without the university’s help.

“We have a really unique opportunity to be able to kind of capitalize in a different way.” Stephens said.