At the stroke of midnight on Thursday morning, a bedrock principle that has defined college sports for generations suddenly changed. That’s when a new NCAA policy allowing athletes for the first time to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL) went into effect.

Under the new policy, hundreds of thousands of college athletes in the United States are now eligible to make money from things like endorsements, personal appearances and social media shout-outs. Rules barring schools from paying athletes directly are still in place. The change came abruptly — the NCAA announced its new policy less than eight hours before it became active — but it also marks a major step in a fight over amateur sports that has gone on for decades.

The NCAA had long resisted allowing athletes to leverage their fame for profit, arguing that the payments would undermine the purity of the amateur sports model. Support for that system has gradually dwindled over the years, as college sports grew into a multibillion dollar industry characterized by massive TV deals, lucrative sponsorship deals and huge coaching salaries, while players received none of the revenue they helped generate. A handful of recent court cases, including one just last week, had chipped away at the legal ground that had allowed for the student-athlete model to persist for so long.

The final push that forced the NCAA to change its NIL policy came from the states. More than a dozen state legislatures, starting with California in 2019, passed laws barring schools from punishing athletes who accept endorsement money. Many of those laws went into effect on Thursday, which compelled the NCAA to revise its rules so that athletes across the country would have similar rights.

Why there’s debate

The new rules were celebrated by current and former college players, as well as commentators who have accused the NCAA of exploiting athletes by denying them the right to make money off of their talents. The new rules, they argue, will finally allow stars in sports like football and basketball to take in a share of the millions of dollars that they generate for their schools. Others say one of the biggest benefits of the new policy is that it will allow athletes who don’t have the opportunity to make massive salaries at the pro level, like gymnasts and women’s sports stars, to cash in when they’re at their most marketable.

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