Like what’s unfolding in college athletics, more and more high school student athletes across America are now allowed to be compensated for their name, image, and likeness (NIL), ushering in a new model of support for some of the nation’s youngest sports stars.
But it isn’t happening without some controversy.
Currently, 19 states have modified or developed new policies about NIL, while almost a dozen others are considering it. And where NIL is permitted, headlines are being made.
For example, Nike in May signed its first high school NIL deal with the Thompson twins, Alyssa and Gisele, who are soccer stars at the independent, co-educational college prep day Harvard-Westlake High School in California and members of the U.S. National Team system.
Reportedly, Nike’s multiyear commitment involves monetary compensation for the sisters, who both have committed to attend Stanford University when they graduate in a couple of years.
Then in October, Nike signed NIL deals with three more high school student-athlete standouts, including Bronny James, the oldest son of NBA superstar LeBron James and a senior who plays point guard for the boys basketball team at Sierra Canyon High School in Southern California.
It’s been widely reported that the Bronny James-Nike NIL signing is the largest endorsement deal in NIL history to date and could even be the biggest deal in college or high school sports for Nike.
Of course, such high school NIL deals don’t currently compare with those being made at the college level, according to Peter Carfagna, chairman and CEO of Magis LLC, a privately owned sports marketing, management, and investment company. “It’s evolving,” the Harvard professor said recently.
How money can be earned also is evolving.
Right now, college student athletes may engage in NIL activity without fearing their eligibility could be jeopardized. High school athletes, on the other hand, don’t enjoy the same freedoms.
For collegiate athletes, the NCAA approved a policy that allows student-athletes to monetize their NIL effective July 1, 2021. No federal legislation or specific NCAA NIL rules have been established to date.
Meanwhile, high school student athletes must adhere to a patchwork of NIL regulations set up by their specific state athletic associations.
“Slowly but surely, state-by-state, NIL is happening,” Carfagna said. “However, at the high school level, there are many limitations and all sorts of guardrails.”
Opendorse, an NIL marketplace and technology company, reported on Oct. 11 that high school regulations for NIL rights are confirmed permitted in 19 states; confirmed prohibited in 19 states; and under consideration in 11 states.
Generally, in the states where high schoolers may be compensated for their NIL, it’s permissible provided that there is no recognition of the student athletes’ school, school logos, uniforms, or insignia. And then their list of ‘can’t do’ grows from there.
For instance, the Oregon School Activities Association last month changed a rule to allow student athletes in Oregon high schools to profit off their NIL. While there’s no maximum amount that student athletes may earn from NIL deals, there are plenty of rules about how they can earn the money.
Some of the guidelines instituted in Oregon regarding compensation include that student athletes can’t make money based on their athletic performance or achievement, and compensation can’t be used to lure a student to attend a particular member school of the association or to remain enrolled at a particular member school.
At the same time, compensation also isn’t allowed to be provided by the Oregon association’s member school or an agent of the member school, like a school booster club, foundation, employee, etc.
An Oregon high school student athlete also can’t promote activities, services, or products associated with, but not limited to, adult entertainment products or services; alcohol, tobacco, nicotine, and vaping products; cannabis products; controlled dangerous substances; prescription pharmaceuticals; political parties and/or candidates; any product illegal for people under 18; or gambling, among many others.
Carfagna said athletic directors and student athletes at the high school level must be extremely careful about understanding and adhering to each state’s rules and regulations.
On top of that, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the national leadership organization for high school athletics and performing arts activities, isn’t so keen on NIL.
NFHS says it and its member state associations would not support a situation that would involve a member school and a student athlete entering into a professional contract while representing that member school.
“The NFHS and its member associations believe high school student athletes should not be able to benefit as professionals from something they do not own — that is their high school uniform,” NFHS CEO Karissa Niehoff wrote in a June 8 blog.
“Right now, within the 51-member state associations, while some state statutes are bringing high school student athletes into their language, no student athlete in a member school can be a professionally paid student by virtue of their identity as a student athlete in that member school,” wrote Niehoff.
Peter Fitzpatrick, CEO of DistrictWON, which is at the forefront of the scholastic marketing/partnership industry, said that voices within the NFHS for a long time have pushed states not to adopt NIL in fear of losing the sense of amateurism and moving toward a commercialized market.
“I think they got that wrong and should do everything they can to adopt it across the nation and move forward,” he said.
And while Fitzpatrick supports “education-based” sports as much as every coach, athletic director, and executive director does, he’s “unfortunately seen many decisions by leadership relative to this issue and others that have ultimately hurt the advancement of these sports, while simultaneously watching club sports explode.”
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 9-0 decision in favor of NIL in June 2021 — which forced the NIL-opposing NCAA to develop its policy — Fitzpatrick said he’s consulted with Carfagna on the issue.
Carfagna has “made it very clear that defending NIL adoption in the courts will be a major uphill climb for state associations,” said Fitzpatrick. “Rather than deal with the inevitable and run up massive legal bills, states should be in a race to adopt NIL and provide the proper educational tools to help instruct their membership and student athletes how to utilize it properly.”
And while such efforts are happening in almost 20 states right now, both Carfagna and Fitzpatrick say it should happen faster.
“The race goes to the swift,” said Carfagna.
“I think [NIL] is fantastic and represents a terrific opportunity for student athletes,” Fitzpatrick said. “Think of all the student athletes that could earn hundreds or even a few thousand dollars from NIL.”
In looking at the college market, he added, the average NIL deal is worth $1,500-$1,800. “If a local company is willing to provide funding to a student athlete and help out the family, I think it’s a terrific opportunity,” said Fitzpatrick.
Both experts also think NIL could become very successful at the high school level.
“It could be a game changer,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think local businesses would love to sponsor student athletes across all sports and activities. The times have changed. Club sports will no doubt jump on this immediately and schools are going to need an answer.”
They also think that high schools should learn from the college experience by instituting good legal frameworks and structure with defined rules put into play.
“Ideally, those rules would cut across all states, but we have seen the difficulty of trying to do that at the college level,” noted Fitzpatrick. “There will be downsides for sure and abuses of the program, but those cannot and should not stop forward progress. The Supreme Court ruling isn’t going anywhere.”
Rocky River, Ohio-based DistrictWON creates meaningful brand connections within local communities through marketing partnerships between businesses and high schools. For more information on how to reach high school students, parents and administrators in a way that truly makes a difference in the community, visit https://www.districtwon.com, https://www.facebook.com/districtwon, or follow https://www.linkedin.com/company/districtwon/.