Why this matters
Just as the United States is getting used to the new world order of NIL – name, image, likeness – at universities, high school athletes are gaining attention from major brands. And just like at the college level, a patchwork, state-by-state system is leading to head-scratching inconsistencies and concerns over whether business is working in young athletes’ best interest.
Mikey Williams is not your typical high school basketball player.
A 17-year-old high school junior in North Carolina and one of the top prospects in the class of 2023, Williams has 3.3 million Instagram followers, more than many National Basketball Association players. He has landed a multimillion-dollar shoe deal with Puma, the first of its kind for a high school athlete, and a marketing deal with Excel Sports Management to pursue sponsorships and other opportunities to profit from his name, image, and likeness (NIL).
“I’m still getting used to it, to be honest with you,” Williams recently told Yahoo! Sports.
When it comes to adjusting to the new world of young athletes being able to cash in on their NILs, Williams isn’t alone. In July, pressure from lawmakers in California, Florida, and other states forced the National Collegiate Athletic Association to abandon its longstanding prohibition on NIL compensation for college athletes – a major change that is bound to have a significant impact on high school sports, too.
Just what that impact will ultimately look like remains to be seen. As is the case in college sports, there is no national law or policy governing NIL policy at the high school level. Instead, high school athletic associations in different states have different rules and approaches – many of which figure to shift and evolve in the coming years as NCAA-level policies and the nascent NIL marketplace sort themselves out.
For now, however, one thing seems inevitable: Ready or not, the NIL era for high school sports has arrived. Other athletes will follow Williams’ playbook or write their own.
“For the top-rated junior and senior recruits, there will be opportunities,” said Braly Keller, an NIL specialist who studies high school trends for Opendorse, a marketing platform for athletes. “But I also think the potential risk of a high school athlete doing a deal is probably scary for a lot of brands. Major brands hesitate at times to partner with athletes because if athletes don’t get it done on the field, fans correlate that failure with the brand.”
‘A Real Disruptor?’
NCAA rules changes aren’t the only reason Williams has been able to capitalize on the value created by his fame and 5 million combined Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter followers. He plays for Vertical Academy in Charlotte, a school that was founded by his father and is scheduled to play 25 games in 19 states against prep schools and similar academies.
If Williams instead played for a traditional high school affiliated with the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, his current endorsement deals would make him ineligible for competition. The organization forbids athletes to receive awards exceeding $250 per sports season.
State high school athletic associations have long followed the NCAA’s lead in prohibiting financial compensation of almost any kind for athletes. In the wake of the association’s about-face on NIL, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) wants to draw a line of distinction between high school and college sports.
While the NFHS writes playing rules for high school sports and provides guidance on a multitude of national issues, every state athletic association creates its own eligibility rules. Many state associations are so far following the NFHS’s lead. Associations in California, New York, and New Jersey recently adopted policies allowing high school athletes to profit off their NILs, as long as the endorsements are not affiliated with an athlete’s school. Nebraska is also considering allowing high schoolers to benefit from their NILs.
NFHS Executive Director Karissa Niehoff said other paths exist for the most high-profile young athletes to play sports and make money. “When it comes to the actual high school locker room experience, the culture of the school community, and all that is unique about high school sports, we believe that professional contracts could be a real disruptor,” she said.
The United States is one of the few countries where high school sports are organized mainly by schools instead of sports clubs. Like Neihoff, many school administrators fear that allowing NIL will change the amateur norms of school-based sports for the worse.
Yet even without NIL, those norms have been shifting, shaped by growing competitive pressure and ongoing commercialization. It’s common to see high schools recruit athletes. Players often transfer for more attention, improved coaching, or better playing time. Some coaches make six-figure salaries. Some teams play in stadiums that cost $40 million or more to build and have sold naming rights to commercial sponsors. High school games are regularly shown on national TV, so much so that ESPN recently was duped into airing a lopsided football game that saw the network’s announcers express concern for the safety of clearly overmatched players from a school that didn’t actually exist. For $10.99 a month or $69.99 a year, a sports fan can subscribe to the NFHS Network to stream live and on-demand games in 27 sports.
Niehoff worries about NIL moving into the recruitment process, creating high school eligibility issues, and widening inequities between wealthy and poor communities. Quinn Ewers, a top-rated quarterback from Texas for the class of 2022, graduated one year early to benefit from NIL policy immediately. Texas is one of three states with a law prohibiting high school athletes from profiting off their NILs. According to ESPN, Ewers enrolled early at Ohio State University and signed an autograph deal with GT Sports Marketing worth $1.4 million.
“We’re concerned that if high school students see something shiny in the way of an NIL contract before them, it can detract from students choosing where they want to go in their next phase, what’s the best school for them,” she said. “We don’t want agents representing contracts to be the lead influencer.”
Red Tape and Question Marks
Keller, the Opendorse marketing expert, has read the bylaws of every state high school athletic association and has tried to speak with each for additional clarity. He also has created a database for Opendorse that summarizes NIL regulations in each state as best as possible.
What he has found, he said, is a confusing patchwork of outdated rules.
“The concept of amateurism when these policies were created 30 or 40 years ago was in a much different time,” Keller said. “There are phrases like, ‘a student shall not accept money.’ Well, does that mean they can’t get a $50 birthday gift from their grandmother? Can they not work at McDonald’s? There are phrases like, 'an athlete loses amateur status by capitalizing on their athletic fame.’ Does their athletic fame also include their social media prominence?”
According to Keller, about 11 state associations currently are considering rules changes to permit NIL deals. They face the same questions about economic rights and fundamental fairness that the NCAA did, such as “what’s the difference between a talented high school band member making money, and a talented high school athlete doing the same?”
“I do not personally know of musicians who make money while wearing the high school uniform,” Niehoff said. “That’s what we’re discouraging. If they go out and give music lessons and that’s who they are and they make money, that’s fantastic. But they are not making money while teaching music wearing the band uniform. That’s where we want to draw a very strong line.”
In Indiana, “our association says you can’t make any money,” said Philip Levine, athletic director and assistant principal at Lebanon High School. “I can’t even give athletes a $20 gift card for athlete-of-the-week honors. I have to give the gift card to the parents to get around the rule. More states are going to have to review their rules, just like the NCAA did.”
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s new NIL policy may offer a glimpse of the future. Crafted in collaboration with Rutgers University and Big East Conference officials, the policy prohibits any involvement of schools, teams, or uniforms in advertising. High school coaches, teachers, and administrators are not allowed to be involved in athletes’ NIL activities. Athletes can be featured on radio and TV, but they can’t participate in NIL activities involving casinos or gambling, alcohol, drugs, and adult entertainment.
“I think the same antitrust legal concerns felt in college sports over NIL we’ll see at the high school level,” Keller said. “New York, New Jersey, California, and Nebraska have likely already identified this and don’t want to be caught in a position where they’re restricting NIL opportunities.”
Some high schools are beginning to educate their athletes about NIL. That’s the case at Lewis Central High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa. With a student body of roughly 800 students, Lewis Central produces about one Division I athlete every year. Football players have gone on to Texas Christian University, the University of Iowa, the University of Nebraska, the University of Kansas, the University of South Florida, and the University of South Alabama. Several graduates annually play in Divisions II and III.
There are no NIL deals at Lewis Central, at least not yet. According to Opendorse, the Iowa High School Athletic Association bylaws need clarity regarding NIL. Still, Josh Allen, who handles communication duties for the Lewis Central Community School District, says the issue can’t be ignored. “Originally, NIL at the high school level wasn’t even on my radar, and it was more about preparing them for college,” he said. “I’m surprised how quickly (high school) NIL has moved in a couple states.”
It’s unclear whether some Lewis Central athletes could land endorsements even if allowed. Allen said some of the school’s athletes possess social media followings in the thousands – hardly the large numbers that might invite major endorsement opportunities as influencers.
“There will be a localized market, maybe regional, if you’re good enough,” he said. “I think about the mom-and-pop restaurants around town that would love to get their name in front of 1,500 local students who would be willing to stop by and get something to eat.”
Lewis Central has 12 sponsors that contribute to the school’s booster club. Their logos rotate through the school’s broadcasts of games – not unlike college sports telecasts, just with far less money invested. While many universities opposed NIL for decades because they feared losing athletic department revenue once sponsors could directly pay athletes, Allen doesn’t share that worry for his athletic department.
“I don’t think any of our sponsors would choose students over us,” he said. “We have real estate companies, financial advisors, grocery stores. I see NIL opening up another level for other businesses to get involved. These new businesses aren’t going to pay $1,000 to $5,000 to be on our broadcast, and that’s fine. They’ll reach out to a student who’s willing to have a burger on them.”
In the first four months of the NIL era in college sports, according to Opendorse, Division I athletes who have at least one disclosed NIL deal made an average of $686. The average compensation is much lower for athletes with NIL deals in Division II ($68) and Division III ($35).
“I would assume most high school deals would be in the Division III range,” Allen said. “To a high school kid, $50 is a lot.”
Keeping Young Athletes On Course
Another question raised by NIL: Will the pursuit of endorsement deals by high school and college athletes create additional pressure to succeed in a youth sports environment where increasing hypercompetitiveness and early specialization already are increasing the risk of burnout and overuse injuries?
According to research by Aspen Institute with Resonant Education, students say that their biggest motivations to play high school sports are to have fun (81%), exercise (79%), learn and improve skills (66%), and play with and make new friends (64%). Meanwhile, chasing college scholarships ranks No. 9 at 39%.
Still, that chase has made high school and youth sports more intense for everyone involved. Allen wonders if NIL will have a similar effect – and his well-intentioned approach to educating athletes on NIL suggests how this could happen. “We’ll tell students the best thing they can do to possibly market themselves is to be a better athlete,” he said. “We really have to keep the focus on being better at your craft, and all that other NIL stuff will come.”
There’s little question that as NIL becomes normalized at the college level, its impact will trickle down to high school sports. After all, the business of sports starts early, and some elite athletes of high school age have value. But it’s also true that most high school athletes are minors, and the hunt for NIL money could create more opportunities for adults to exploit young athletes, place more pressure on those athletes to perform, and even bring more risk of abuse.
Some members of Congress are trying to establish health and safety protections for NCAA athletes. Protections are also needed for younger, more vulnerable athletes as NIL creates both opportunities and risks. The Aspen Institute, through help by a working group of human rights and sports policy experts, created the Children’s Bill of Rights in Sports to build a shared cultural understanding that all youth should have the opportunity to develop as people through sports.
“I think the age question is worth considering,” Keller said. “Schools and high school associations can help athletes educate themselves if the right educational structure is put in place. With the right structure, athletes can set themselves up for post-graduation opportunities and life skills in areas like financial literacy, taxes, negotiation, business creation, and marketing – things they’ve previously had to try to learn on the fly when their career ends.”
NIL is coming to high school sports. What it looks like and how it’s applied will take time to figure out.
Jon Solomon is editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, whose main initiative is Project Play. Learn more about Project Play’s Reimagining School Sports initiative here.
College sports changed dramatically this year with new NCAA rules allowing athletes to profit from their names, images, and likenesses (NILs). For athlete empowerment advocates, it was a major victory—one that could prompt further reform and reorganization across the landscape of intercollegiate athletics.
How has NIL already impacted college sports, and what is on the horizon for campuses and their communities around the United States?