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States Grapple with Allowing High School Athlete Endorsements

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States Grapple with Allowing High School Athlete Endorsements
Bronny James
Bronny James, a basketball player at Sierra Canyon School in California and the son of NBA basketball star LeBron James, has signed an endorsement deal with an underwear company. California is one of several states that allow high school athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness.
Rick Scuteri The Associated Press

In a handful of states, high school athletes have started making endorsement deals with pizza parlors, apparel companies and smartphone apps—cashing in on their status as star players. 

Throughout much of the country, such deals would still cause students to forfeit their athletic eligibility. But the landscape is shifting quickly. Eight state athletic associations now allow high schoolers to profit from their name, image and likeness, known as NIL. More than a dozen states are considering similar changes, according to Opendorse, a Nebraska-based marketing platform for athletes.

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 rolled back its longstanding rules banning such deals. The NCAA ban had served as a de facto prohibition for high school athletes who wanted to preserve their college eligibility.

With the old NCAA rules revoked, states are left to decide high school policy.

“States are in catch-up mode,” said Geoff Kimmerly, communications director with the Michigan High School Athletic Association, which is working to clarify its rules. “It’s a very fast-moving process right now.”

While state legislators largely crafted the changes for college athletes, decisions at the high school level have mostly been left to the statewide school associations that govern high school sports. Leaders of those groups say they’ve been compelled in the past year to revisit their rules, both to offer clarity to students and to determine whether changes are necessary.

“We wanted to be proactive in our approach and drive the direction we wanted this 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 profit from endorsements.

“We did not want to end up in a situation where we were going to face litigation or have legislation proposed,” 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 go-ahead for endorsement deals.

Officials there said athletes should be free to capitalize on the earning opportunities their talents generate, just like their peers in school band or theater programs. Many high schoolers, including athletes, have amassed large followings on social media.

“There's a lot of money being made by teenagers who may have followers 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.

Isaiah Livers wears a T-shirt that reads "#NotNCAAProperty"
Isaiah Livers wears a T-shirt that reads "#NotNCAAProperty"
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With No National Standard, States Scramble to Allow College Athlete Endorsements

“It really just is a mess at this point.”

But nearly two dozen states have indicated that they won’t be changing their rules to allow endorsements, according to Opendorse. Leaders have argued that big-money contracts have no place in games played by high schoolers.

“We continue to maintain that we are education-based athletics,” said Billy Haun, executive director of the Virginia High School League. “Amateur athletes should be playing sports for the physical, mental, social, pleasure and educational values they get from this.”

‘This Is Not Going to Go Away’

Many states are gathering feedback as they grapple with whether to change policies. The Colorado High School Activities Association’s legislative council is set to vote on new rules in April, and leaders expect the policy to pass.

“This is not going to go away, so how do we find a way to uphold the core values of education-based athletics but also provide that opportunity for an individual student that may be a standout?” said Rhonda Blanford-Green, commissioner of the association. 

Oregon also is considering changes.

“Is this something that's needed to address a situation that may be coming, or is it a road we don't want to go down because of 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 headed.”

Weber expressed concern that name, image and likeness deals could be used to recruit athletes to certain schools, an issue many endorsement opponents have raised. States that have legalized endorsements say they’re watching carefully to ensure they’re not used as a recruiting tool.

Georgia’s association has said it likely won’t allow endorsement deals.

“[S]cholastic sports have a different focus and exist to extend the classroom and teach those life lessons such as leadership, how to follow, work hard, set goals, work on a team,” Robin Hines, executive director of the Georgia High School Association, said in an email. 

In Virginia, where school leaders have banned endorsement deals, lawmakers passed a bill earlier this month to put that prohibition into state law.

“We want to protect them from exploitative contracts,” said Del. Cia Price, the Democrat who sponsored the bill. “If Virginia decides that is the route we want to go, this bill would force [state lawmakers] to come back and have a deliberative conversation about guardrails and player protections.”

Murky Market

While the college endorsement market has exploded over the past year, experts say that most high schoolers aren’t positioned to cash in once the rules change. Only a handful of stars have strong name recognition, and leaders in small states—such as Vermont—note that they rarely produce top recruits. Some state leaders said they’d yet to hear of an athlete in 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 Sport Industry Research Center at Temple University. “Those few who have built a recognizable brand should be able to monetize that.”

Given social media stardom, the rules remain murky for many athletes.

“[State rules] were not crafted to address things such as social media endorsements or digital influencer-like opportunities,” said Braly Keller, name, image and likeness specialist at Opendorse. “No matter what side of the issue you land on, the policies themselves should address this topic.”

In Michigan, for instance, students are allowed to earn endorsements, as long as those endorsements don’t capitalize on their athletic fame.

Ohio State University Athletics Director Gene Smith discusses his support for legislation that would allow athletes at Ohio colleges to earn compensation through endorsements and sponsorship deals based on their names, images and likenesses on Monday, May 24, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio.
Ohio State University Athletics Director Gene Smith discusses his support for legislation that would allow athletes at Ohio colleges to earn compensation through endorsements and sponsorship deals based on their names, images and likenesses on Monday, May 24, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio.
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Texas and Illinois have joined the movement.

“If they have a following in something that's not [sports]-related, our rules do not restrict them from doing endorsements,” said the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Kimmerly. “If you were to endorse something based on the fact that you had 5 million followers, as opposed to being an outfielder for a baseball team, that is allowed.”

That rule leaves it up to state officials to judge on a case-by-case basis the extent to which a student’s following stems from their athletic prowess. 

States that have lifted their endorsement bans say the rule changes were designed to avoid such confusing situations, as students grow large social media followings by sharing both the sports and non-sports parts of their lives. 

“How do we differentiate between a student capitalizing on athletic fame and a student that's just a social media influencer?” asked Zayas, the New York official. “When we're not able to enforce a rule across the board, we have to look at revising it.”

Kimmerly said Michigan’s council may seek to clarify its rule, but he noted that the vast majority of students are unlikely to face such questions.

Testing the Waters

States that have legalized endorsements point out that athletes still face pitfalls.

Students would have to report their earnings and pay taxes, and if they earn significant amounts, they could jeopardize their ability to qualify for college financial aid. And athletes who sign a long-term deal with one apparel company could disqualify themselves from attending a college that’s partnered with a rival brand.

Experts also note that many parents push young kids into expensive travel teams and youth programs, as private coaches convince them they could earn 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 drive a kid too much thinking it’s a payday for them, now suddenly here’s this payday earlier,” said Kenneth Shropshire, CEO of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University. “That's the kind of opportunism that can grow greater when there's money floating around.” 

Still, Shropshire and others say states need to focus on keeping bad actors in check, rather than denying opportunities to athletes.

The National Federation of State High School Associations, an advocacy group for the state organizations that govern high school sports and other activities, published a column last year renouncing the idea that high schoolers should earn endorsement rights. Now that several of its members have changed their rules, the group has softened its stance. Its leaders now are focused on ensuring that endorsement deals don’t include a school logo or uniform.

“It’s appropriate to say 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 that state association’s policy. The rule was designed to remove schools from the equation of students’ earning opportunities, he said, but concerns remain. 

“Do we really want to adopt that responsibility as schools to help students make financial decisions?” he said. “But the students need to be informed, and I don’t know where that responsibility lies.”

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College athletes get scholarships but can’t earn money for endorsements.

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