The high school NIL landscape is devoid of any clarity

The high school NIL landscape is devoid of any clarity

Eric Prisbell15 days
Article written by:Eric PrisbellEric Prisbell

EricPrisbell

QuinnEwersOhioState
Quinn Ewers skipped his senior year of high school so he could cash in on NIL opportunities. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

If you’re an elite high school athlete with a strong social media following and you’re hoping to begin monetizing your brand, here are your options.

+ Take the Quinn Ewers route. Texas state law prohibited Evers (pictured above), the former Southlake Carroll quarterback phenom, from engaging in NIL activities while in high school, so Ewers took his game, his brand and his bleach-blonde mullet to Ohio State, graduating high school a year early. The Buckeyes’ fourth-string quarterback secured deals in excess of $1 million.

+ Take the Mikey Williams route. One of the best high school basketball players in the class of 2023, Williams now is playing for Vertical Academy in Charlotte, which operates outside the auspices of high school federations. Williams signed a contract with Excel Sports Management even though he won’t be eligible for the NBA draft until 2024.

+ Or take the Jada Williams route. Just 16, the highly touted female basketball player recently transferred from a school in Kansas City to La Jolla Country Day School in the San Diego area for her junior year. Her family has not addressed the role, if any, that NIL potential played into the move; the state of Missouri prohibits NIL deals for high school athletes, while California is one of the few states that allows it. Spalding last week announced that Williams, a UCLA commitment, will be one of its brand ambassadors.

None of those avenues is likely to prompt a wave of other top prospects to follow. If you think the disparate state laws and university policies at the college level are chaotic, check out the high school landscape. It is completely devoid of any clarity whatsoever.

California is the only state that explicitly allows high school athletes to monetize their brand — well, unless you also count North Dakota, which limits high school athletes’ compensation to $300, and Illinois, which limits it to $75. The caveat in California is that athletes can’t use their school’s name, logo or uniform in advertisements. And in Illinois, there are no limits to the athletes’ compensation if he/she develops their own business unrelated to their participation in an athletic contest or recognition.

Got all that?

Convoluted or vague, stipulations surrounding NIL potential are even murkier elsewhere. In Washington, D.C., a high school athlete loses eligibility if they use their “status to promote or endorse a commercial product or service” on any number of mediums. But the same regulation states that “accepting compensation for teaching lessons, coaching, or officiating shall not jeopardize the student’s amateur status.”

In Iowa, an athlete can lose amateur status if they have competed for money in any organized athletic activity, but the regulations don’t specifically address NIL activities. In Maine, existing rules do not explicitly address NIL opportunities. And New Hampshire’s regulations inexplicably address only the prohibition of athletes receiving compensation for media appearances on radio and TV. 

Several other states are in the process of assessing, clarifying or modifying rules, said a detailed late-September state-by-state breakdown of regulations put together by Opendorse, a leader in the NIL space. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association is expected to vote on a proposal to allow high school athletes to benefit from NIL in its Executive Committee meeting October 20. 

A lack of information on prep level

If all that isn’t headache-inducing enough, imagine trying to navigate the high school NIL minefield as a parent of an elite prospect — while also trying to avoid the typical perils of the recruiting world. While some sources in the NIL space say that all but a few elite high school athletes shouldn’t focus on NIL potential in high school, if a market exists for them to monetize their brand, why shouldn’t they? But the process starts with assessing the thicket of state regulations, which is a sizable challenge.

College athletes have a host of resources to turn to for NIL clarity, ranging from their school’s compliance office to third parties like Opendorse, Athliance, Altius Sports Partners and INFLCR, among others. But the NIL space is most complicated for the individuals — high school athletes and families — who are in the toughest position to know where to find answers, much less the right answers. 

In a comment that perfectly encapsulates the information vacuum at the high school level, Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson told the Los Angeles Times in August: “It is very hard to get information because the NCAA is basically nonexistent. I am appealing to various universities to send me what their compliance has. … Right now, I’m talking to the parents and saying, ‘Whatever you do, don’t sign anything.’ ”

For the elite prospects at high schools that routinely develop high-major college athletes, “those kids right now in high school, their brands have value,” said Jerome Williams, the former NBA veteran and vice president of the NBA Players Association who now counsels youth on NIL issues. “The Oak Hill Academies, the Montverde Academies, those types of institutions will continue to thrive and also embrace NIL because that’s who they are. They are getting top talent and could play against the G-League team and Overtime Elite, and those schools will remain a staple for that (NIL) kind of thing. It’s up to the parent to be educated.”

Easier said than done. 

“How important is education (on NIL issues)? It’s critical,” Dave DuPont, the founder of TeamSnap, the platform used by more than 25 million youth coaches and parents, told On3. “Even before that, it’s important for key influencers and leaders in the community to understand the issue and be in a position to respond to it. It’s tricky because different entities have different interests. Sports organizations are in an excellent position, in theory, to provide guidance on these issues. I see a need for an impartial third party.”

California high schools and NIL dollars

Ewers could be a once-in-a-decade talent who was able to forgo his senior year of high school to secure a $1.4 million autograph deal at Ohio State even though he has yet to play in a game. And Williams, with 3.3 million Instagram followers, is viewed by some sources as more of a social media influencer than a future bonafide NBA star — more style than substance.

Whether Jada Williams migrated to California primarily for the NIL opportunities is uncertain. But it’s reasonable that other top prospects will want to transfer to California high schools to seek out NIL dollars. Rebecca Brutlag, media relations officer for the CIF, told On3 in an email that the federation’s bylaw has been in place for many years because some high school athletes are involved in the entertainment or TV industry. 

There is a catch, of course, for the athletes. 

Malik S. Jackson is a sports attorney with Jacksonville-based Smith Hulsey & Busey who counsels clients on NIL compensation matters. He told On3 that high school athletes could be pigeonholing their high school careers to specific jurisdictions. In other words, if a high school athlete in California monetizes his/her brand, they risk losing their eligibility if they move to another state to finish high school. Imagine children of servicemembers stationed in San Diego, Jackson said, who are subsequently relocated to Florida, where high school NIL activities are prohibited. 

There also is the question of whether NIL deals secured as high school athletes would follow them into college and whether they would be aligned with university policies, which often vary.

So while California dangles an enticing carrot as one of the few states that permit NIL deals for high school athletes, danger still looms. For those viewing California’s policy as a goldmine for top high school athletes, think of navigating that NIL landscape like driving through the notorious Bay Area fog: Exercise extreme caution. 

“Many elite high school athletes, and especially basketball players, will transfer to schools in California so they can engage in NIL deals while in high school,” Jackson said. “But we do not have a grasp on the negative unintended consequences.”