Last year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association made a big decision. It allowed college athletes to earn income by marketing their own names, images, and likenesses (NIL). College athletes—not just their schools—could make money from corporate endorsements, promoting gear and products, or even offering services and appearances on social media.
Since that decision, similar offers are trickling down to the high school level. State school boards have a dilemma. Should athletic kids as young as high school be negotiating marketing promotions for income instead of focusing on studies and preparation for other areas of life? Do schools even have a right to limit what students do with their own NIL?
States are split on the issue. So far, seven have approved deals for high school athletes. But others, like Ohio, are still debating.
In May, high school principals in Ohio overwhelmingly rejected the proposal to allow their athletes to sign NIL deals. Students who did would lose athletic eligibility.
“A lot of us here at the OHSAA and school administrators don’t like NIL,” says Ohio High School Athletic Association spokesperson Tim Stried. “We wish we weren’t having to deal with this. But it’s not going away.”
David Ridpath is an associate professor of sports business at Ohio University. He frames the opportunity for student athletes to benefit financially as a civil rights issue. Athletes are not employees of the schools they attend. Therefore, he says, they should not be restricted from earning money.
But others feel differently. Recruiting high school athletes to college programs is already complicated. There are always legal issues where minors are concerned. Someone must ensure young people aren’t exploited. There are also safety issues when young people—and their school locations—are featured publicly on social media.
It’s unlikely that many high school athletes will continue on to athletic careers. So investing in them now—essentially making them into social media influencers—seems like a short-term diversion. And yet, the generation commonly called Gen Z doesn’t see this as getting the short end of things. Gen Z has grown up with the digital world integrated fully into life. They are “natives” of the always-changing digital culture. To many, NIL deals for kids gives them some control to offer their present assets in a community they already accept and value: cyberspace. Selling images through digital means is not unusual or edgy in their young minds.
Ian Jackson is a basketball player and high school student from the Bronx, New York. He’s one young athlete that’s cashing in on NIL deals. Ian earns a percentage of sales on a merchandise company’s products that carry his likeness. He also pockets four-figure monthly checks just for posting about the brand on social media. Jackson is willing to play the game while it lasts. He says he’s saving the money to buy a home for his family.
Why? In the digital world, image and celebrity are highly marketable, with new opportunities opening for everyday people to rise to the status of “influencer.” But guarding the wellbeing of minors requires wisdom—and often adult input and the restrictions of law.
Actions have consequences. Click to see a bubble map that shows how one event (such as offering NIL deals to high school athletes) can lead to another.