NFHS: HS Athletes Must Be Protected from NIL Issues

Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down high school sports and performing arts last March, we have been looking forward to that day when normalcy returns. While there are challenging days ahead, the turning of the calendar to 2021 and the approval of vaccines provide the first ray of sunshine in 10 months.

Although it may be summer or fall before anything resembling nationwide normalcy occurs, we believe there will be a day when education-based activities programs return to their previous form.

There is a troublesome issue on the horizon, however, that if not addressed appropriately could have a longer-term negative impact on education-based interscholastic sports and performing arts than the terrible, but more temporary, impact of any novel coronavirus.   

While the governance process is still uncertain, it seems possible that at some point in 2021, in some form or another, college athletes could be earning money from their “Name, Image and Likeness” (NIL) through endorsement deals, sponsorships and other opportunities.

At its convention later this month, the NCAA is scheduled to vote on a proposal that would allow college athletes to accept endorsement money starting this summer. Several states have already passed laws allowing NIL benefits without specific definition as to how this might happen – the first of which is due to take effect this summer and would be less restrictive than what the NCAA is proposing.

In addition, there are at least four proposals in Congress to overhaul college sports, the latest of which – the College Athlete Bill of Rights – could force some schools to share revenue with athletes and create a Commission on College Athletics.

Finally, last month, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear the Alston case, which addresses the levels of caps on compensation the NCAA can impose on college football and basketball players. Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University, said the Supreme Court’s decision could “ . . . open the door to significant competition between schools for athletes’ services and ultimately allow schools to pay anything they want to try to attract the athlete. Or it could completely shut down that competition.”    

What is missing in all of these proposals? The potential effect on high school students in interscholastic education-based sports through completion of their senior years and preservation of the most sacred and fundamental aspect of high school sports in the United States – the concept of amateurism!

At the high school level, athletes cannot benefit from wearing their high school jersey. They cannot earn money based on their identity as a high school student-athlete, and this must be protected!

The NFHS and its state associations are committed to protecting high school student-athletes from being influenced by any misinformation about what they are allowed to do with NIL relative to their identity as a high school student-athlete.

Families must pay attention to state association rules and regulations and be assured that nothing, including NIL, overrides their own state association’s regulations. High school student-athletes should not be considered the same as college student-athletes, who have opportunity for scholarships, different eligibility requirements, and different access to resources, training, compensation and exposure.

The NFHS and its member state associations will continue to protect the high school environment and lead the conversation to clarify the definition of a high school student-athlete relative to NIL.

And then there is another troubling issue – third-party agents who work with student-athletes of middle school and high school age in primarily non-school athletic activities such as year-round club and travel programs.

High school students participating in these out-of-school programs MUST NOT be allowed to benefit from NIL. This would completely disrupt the high school environment when these students come into the high school locker room. These two worlds cannot co-exist as the high school environment most likely will be the one that is compromised.  

We must continue to make our voices heard. The NFHS has a voice with the Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit organization composed of about 300 attorneys that works to create consistent laws among states. We have consistent talks with the NCAA and have a lobbyist who monitors legislation in Congress.

The issue of “name, image and likeness” and how it could impact high school students is huge. The battle for amateurism perhaps has been lost at the college level, but it must be maintained to preserve the greatest programs in this country – education-based interscholastic sports in our nation’s high schools.  

Dr. Karissa L. Niehoff is in her third year as executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in Indianapolis, Indiana. 

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