The star visa is a rare victory for foreign athletes who bank on resemblance

The star visa is a rare victory for foreign athletes who bank on resemblance

Hansel Enmanuel, a Dominican guard for the Northwestern State University men’s basketball team, has yet to play his first NCAA game, but he has already been granted a work visa allowing him to sign basketball contracts. seven-digit approval.

Enmanuel, who has been recruited by several Division I schools despite having an arm, could be the first international college athlete to be granted a temporary work visa allowing him to take advantage of new NCAA rules allowing college players to profit from the name, image and resemblance. (NIL).

While US citizen athletes have entered into a flood of such deals, international students have been hampered by the limitations of traditional student visas.

F-1 visas, which are used by most student-athletes, allow on-campus or off-campus employment only if related to a program of study. This doesn’t fit the circumstances of foreign athletes trying to cash in on sports endorsements, who “are fundamentally disadvantaged compared to American athletes for NIL purposes,” said Amy Maldonado, an immigration attorney based in East Lansing, Mich. , who helped Enmanuel secure an O-1 Extraordinary Ability visa last month.

His case could offer a blueprint for some of the most notable college athletes from outside the United States to compete in the NIL wave. But legal and regulatory requirements make it difficult to obtain the necessary work visas for all but the most accomplished athletes, and may leave athletes in less high-profile sports, especially women’s athletics, out of NIL’s lucrative wave. .

Limited options

After a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened the NCAA to antitrust litigation and the passage of dozens of state name, image and likeness laws, the college sports governing body passed a policy last year lifting its ban on such transactions. The policy, which still prohibits payments made to choose specific schools or reward performance, has sparked a rush for compensation deals for college sports’ biggest stars and lesser-known players.

The NIL Opendorse platform estimated that brands spent $917 million on deals in the first year they were licensed, with soccer, men’s basketball and women’s basketball accounting for the vast majority.

But restrictions on student visas have meant international college athletes have been mostly locked out.

There are a handful of visa options for overseas college athletes who want to compete in the new NIL landscape. They can apply for EB-1 Extraordinary Ability Green Cards, an O-1 visa, or a P-1 visa, which is reserved for athletes of an internationally recognized level of performance.

While Enmanuel got an O-1 visa, most athletes fit better in the P-1 category. In practice, however, Department of Homeland Security regulations require P-1 applicants to demonstrate they will compete in competitions that only allow internationally recognized athletes, said Ksenia Maiorova, a sports immigration attorney based in in Orlando.

Candidates therefore struggle to meet the criteria for lesser competition, particularly in women’s sports, she said. “What we’re really talking about are marquee Olympic sports and men’s sports that feed into the major leagues,” she said.

These standards for P-1 visas also fall short of the intent of the NIL rules, which were designed to allow compensation opportunities for less prominent athletes as well as future professionals, Maiorova said.

As a result, she and other immigration attorneys have asked DHS to issue new guidelines that reclassify NIL offers as on-campus employment permitted under student visas.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program did not provide direct guidance on participating in NIL offers for F-1 visa students. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the component of DHS that administers the program, continues to assess the issue of college athletes on student visas being compensated for their name, image and likeness, Alexxis Pons Abascal said, agency spokesperson.

ICE, along with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is also assessing the number of students affected and whether new regulatory guidance is needed, he said.

Northwestern State University basketball player Hansel Enmanuel.

Photo by Alexander Zapata/Z-Axis Sports Management Corp.

A unique story

As recruitment of international stars intensifies, some college programs may feel pressure to find a way for these athletes to participate in name, image and likeness deals, said teaching attorney Jason Montgomery. senior at Husch Blackwell LLP. But he advised institutions that there are no realistic pathways in most cases for international student athletes to enter the NIL game.

“Most individuals — your typical international athletes in sports like tennis, track and field, swimming — won’t be eligible for an O-1 visa,” Montgomery said.

Because Enmanuel was a high school student until this fall, he could not claim that he had competed at an internationally recognized level of performance and therefore was not eligible for a P-1 visa. This left the O-1 visa as his best option for NIL eligibility.

His team made the case for his extraordinary ability by pointing to media coverage – he was the subject of an ESPN documentary – and providing assessment of the name, image and likeness deals he would sign s he was approved for the visa, Maldonado said.

“The O-1 is related to ‘are you extraordinary? Are you amazing? And he is,” she said.

Before getting his O-1, Enmanuel, whose left arm was amputated after a childhood accident, lost some contracts with major brands due to uncertainty over his visa status, said Alex Zapata, his sports agent. . But during the more than six months of waiting for visa approval, he was able to sign an approval agreement with Gatorade while traveling in Mexico. This deal was authorized under his F-1 student visa because the transaction was made outside of the United States.

Its other NIL offerings will be announced in the coming weeks.

Several companies have expressed interest in signing deals with Enmanuel, even though he chose to attend Northwestern State in Natchitoches, Louisiana, rather than larger college programs, Zapata said.

“Given his unique story, brands were drawn to him no matter where he played,” Zapata said. “He’s not traditional in any sense of the word.”

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