In a handful of states, high school athletes have started making sponsorship deals with pizza restaurants, clothing companies and smartphone apps, cashing in on their status as star players.
In much of the country, such deals would still result in students losing athletic eligibility. But the landscape is changing rapidly. Eight state athletic associations now allow high school students to enjoy their name, image and likeness, known as NIL. More than a dozen states are considering similar changes, according to Opendorse, a Nebraska-based athlete marketing platform.
The high school push follows last year’s change at the college level, when many states enacted laws allowing athletes to accept endorsements and the NCAA overturned its longstanding rules prohibiting such transactions. The NCAA ban had served as a de facto ban for high school athletes who wanted to preserve their college eligibility.
With the old NCAA rules revoked, states must decide high school policy.
“States are in catch-up mode,” said Geoff Kimmerly, communications director for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, which is working to clarify its rules. “It’s a very fast process right now.”
While state lawmakers have largely crafted the changes for varsity athletes, decisions at the high school level have mostly been left to state school associations that govern high school sports. Leaders of these groups say they have been forced over the past year to review their rules, both to provide clarity for students and to determine whether changes are needed.
“We wanted to be proactive in our approach and lead in the direction we wanted it to go,” said Robert Zayas, executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, which announced last October that its athletes could benefit of sponsorships.
“We didn’t want to find ourselves in a situation where we were going to face litigation or come up with legislation,” he said.
While California has allowed high school athletes to earn endorsements for years, high school associations in Alaska, Kansas, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Utah and Vermont have all issued policies or clarifications in recent months giving the green light to sponsorship deals.
Officials said athletes should be free to capitalize on the income opportunities their talents generate, just like their peers in school music or drama programs. Many high school students, including athletes, have amassed a large following on social media.
“There’s a lot of money being made by teenagers who can have subscribers on a YouTube channel or TikTok, and we don’t want to stand in the way of those opportunities,” said Colleen Maguire, executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic. Association. “Why should they be restricted in these activities that their peers have, just because they play sports?”
Maguire’s group voted in November to allow endorsements for its students. States that have opened endorsements still prohibit athletes from using their team uniform or logo in advertising.
But nearly two dozen states have indicated they will not change their rules to allow endorsements, according to Opendorse. Executives have argued that big deals have no place in games played by high school students.
“We continue to maintain that we are a sport based on education,” said Billy Haun, executive director of the Virginia High School League. “Amateur athletes should participate in sport for the physical, mental, social, enjoyment and educational values they derive from it.”
“It’s not going away”
Many states are getting feedback as they ponder whether to change policies. The Colorado High School Activities Association’s legislative board is expected to vote on new rules in April, and leaders expect the policy to pass.
“It’s not going away, so how do you find a way to uphold the core values of education-based athletics, but also provide that opportunity for an individual student who can stand out?” said Rhonda Blanford-Green, commissioner of the association.
Oregon is also considering changes.
“Is it something that is necessary to deal with a situation that may arise, or is it a road we don’t want to take due to the concerns we have?” asked Peter Weber, executive director of the Oregon School Activities Association. “We haven’t seen a big push yet, but that’s where things are heading.”
Weber expressed concern that name, image and likeness deals could be used to recruit athletes to some schools, an issue that many opponents of the endorsement have raised. States that have legalized endorsements say they are monitoring carefully to ensure they are not used as a recruitment tool.
The Georgian association said it is unlikely to allow endorsement deals.
“[S]cholastic sports has a different purpose and exists to expand the classroom and teach those life lessons such as leadership, how to follow, work hard, set goals, work as a team,” said Robin Hines, executive director of Georgia High School Association. in an email.
In Virginia, where school leaders have banned endorsement deals, lawmakers passed a bill earlier this month to enshrine that ban in state law.
“We want to protect them from exploitation contracts,” Del said. Cia Price, the Democrat who sponsored the bill. “If Virginia decides that’s the path we want to go, this bill would force [state lawmakers] to come back and have a deliberative conversation about safeguards and player protection.”
While the college endorsement market has exploded over the past year, experts say most high schoolers aren’t able to cash in once the rules change. Only a handful of stars have strong notoriety, and leaders in smaller states, like Vermont, note that they rarely produce the best recruits. Some state leaders said they had yet to hear from an athlete from their state who had been offered a deal.
“High school athletes don’t really have a lot of [endorsement] value,” said Thilo Kunkel, director of the Sports Industry Research Center at Temple University. “Those who have built a recognizable brand should be able to monetize it.”
Given social media stardom, the rules remain murky for many athletes.
“[State rules] weren’t designed to address things like social media endorsements or digital influencer-type opportunities,” said Braly Keller, Name, Image and Likeness Specialist at Opendorse. topic.”
In Michigan, for example, students are allowed to earn endorsements, as long as those endorsements don’t capitalize on their athletic fame.
“If they have a sequel in something that isn’t [sports]- tied, our rules don’t prevent them from making endorsements,” said Kimmerly of the Michigan High School Athletic Association. the team, it’s allowed.”
This rule leaves state officials to judge on a case-by-case basis the extent to which a student’s track stems from their athletic prowess.
States that have lifted their sponsorship bans say the rule changes were designed to avoid such confusing situations, as students develop large social media followings by sharing both the athletic and non-athletic parts of their lives. .
“How do you tell the difference between a student who capitalizes on sports fame and a student who is just a social media influencer?” asked Zayas, the New York official. “When we are unable to enforce a rule across the board, we should consider revising it.”
Kimmerly said the Michigan board may seek to clarify its rule, but noted that the vast majority of students are unlikely to face such questions.
States that have legalized endorsements point out that athletes still face pitfalls.
Students should report their income and pay taxes, and if they earn large sums, they could jeopardize their ability to qualify for college financial aid. And athletes who sign a long-term agreement with an apparel company could disqualify themselves from attending a rival brand’s partner college.
Experts also note that many parents push young children into expensive travel teams and youth programs because private coaches convince them they could win scholarship opportunities with enough investment. Adding endorsement money to the mix at an earlier age could worsen the industrialization of youth sports, critics say.
“Some parents are driving a child too much thinking it’s payday for them, now suddenly here’s that payday earlier,” said Kenneth Shropshire, CEO of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University. “It’s the kind of opportunism that can get worse when there’s money floating around.”
Still, Shropshire and others say states need to focus on controlling bad actors, rather than denying opportunities to athletes.
The National Federation of State High School Associations, an advocacy group for state organizations that govern high school sports and other activities, published a column last year renouncing the idea that high school students should be given rights. of approval. Now that several of its members have changed their rules, the group has softened its stance. Its executives are now focused on ensuring that sponsorship deals do not include the school’s logo or uniform.
“It’s appropriate to say that you can go ahead and do these things, but not as a representative of your high school,” said Karissa Niehoff, the group’s executive director. “That’s where our line is drawn.”
Tom Sherwood, principal of Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, was among the committee members who reviewed the state association’s policy. The rule was designed to take schools out of the student income opportunity equation, he said, but concerns remain.
“Do we really want to take on this responsibility as schools to help students make financial decisions?” he said. “But students need to be informed, and I don’t know where that responsibility lies.”
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