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Michigan Lawmakers Want to Let High School Athletes Profit Off NIL Deals, Schools Aren’t So Sure

Credit: iStock

by Lily Guiney, Michigan Advance

A bill under consideration by the Michigan House would allow high school athletes to turn a profit on name, image and likeness (NIL) deals if passed. 

HB 4816, sponsored by Rep. Jimmie Wilson Jr. (D-Ypsilanti), would clear the way for high school athletes to secure compensation for name, image and likeness (NIL) rights, similar to successful programs at the collegiate level that allow players to make money off of social media deals or sales of apparel bearing their name or number. 

The policy would remove high schools from the NIL process, leaving dealings to run between student athletes and the state’s high school sports association, and would prohibit school districts from letting a student’s NIL status affect their participation. 

Currently, 19 states have concrete laws on the books allowing high school athletes to profit off of use of their name, image or likeness, but the concept raises questions about minors entering into contracts and whether or not paying some kids to play, and not others, goes against the ethos of high school sports.

Wilson said in testimony to the House Higher Education Committee on Wednesday that he noticed a school in his district using a star basketball player’s name and image on mailers encouraging choice enrollment for out-of-district students, something for which he felt the player should have been compensated. 

“We’re working towards giving high school student athletes the right to market themselves through online presence, endorsement deals and more,” Wilson said.

Twelve states prohibit NIL deals for high schoolers outright, including Michigan’s neighbors, Wisconsin and Ohio. Traverse City Central High School Athletic Director Justin Thorington said that at the high school level, NIL just doesn’t make the kind of sense it does for university athletics. 

“Universities are making money off of jersey sales and whatnot,” Thorington said. “We don’t really do that at the high school level.”

The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) agrees. Mark Uyl, the organization’s executive director, testified that for the MHSAA to fully support the bill, modifications would have to be made to recognize the differences between high school and college sports, particularly in educational budgets.

“The reality at the high school level is that this is not the economic model,” Uyl said. “At the high school level, you’ve got a school athletic budget that is typically two to 3% of the total school budget, that impacts anywhere from 60 to 80% of kids in a school district.”

Additionally, he said, it’s not the case that high schools, particularly those that are public, are able to make any significant profit off of their athletes. 

“The economic model and idea that student athletes are somehow being exploited with this huge money making operation simply is not the case at the high school level,” Uyl said.

In spite of the reservations involved, NIL is still a topic of discussion and planning for organizations like the MHSAA. Uyl said it’s about meeting the moment in terms of social media and the ease with which young people can monetize themselves online. 

“When it comes to NIL, I think the most accurate description for high school students would really be about them being able to use their name or their image,” Uyl said. “So a well known athlete can use their name, a well known athlete can use their image on social media.” 

Wilson said social media would be an integral part of NIL deals for high schoolers, allowing students to partner with businesses – albeit, within guidelines laid out by the state as to what industries are appropriate for minors to engage in – as influencers through social platforms like TikTok or Instagram. 

“By allowing these high school student athletes to earn revenue through their NIL rights, we are giving them power and control over whether or not to capitalize on their own name, image and likeness in a world that’s forever changing, in large part thanks to the internet,” Wilson said. 

Wilson admitted that the bulk of Michigan high schoolers likely wouldn’t reap the benefits of an NIL deal; he said the athletes likely to score payments would be “the top 1%.” For Thorington, the idea of one player on a team having paid partnerships while others never will is antithetical to the most important aspects of high school sports – working as a team, and playing not for the win, but for the experience. 

“The point isn’t to win; the point of high school sports is human development,” Thorington said. “Developing good citizens, good young men and women that will go on and be more likely to be successful after they’ve graduated high school because they participated in sports teams. All those things that create a well-rounded, holistic, good citizen.” 

Conversely, Uyl said the best way to keep high school NIL from creating “mega-teams” that pull students away from their home school districts is to make sure that deals are made on an individual basis for singular students. 

“It’s individual opportunities for individual students has [the MHSAA’s] support,” Uyl said. “If it’s creating larger groups, collectives, alumni, some of the things that I’m seeing kind of become creations at the college level, we have lots of heartburn over that.”

As the Legislature also considers a bill dealing with NIL at the college level, encouraging universities to provide financial advice and branding guidance to athletes using NIL rights for profit, the idea of allowing any student athletes to monetize their public image has become a discussion of recruitment and retention. 

While NIL is used by universities to draw athletes to a certain school, Uyl said that it could be a way to keep high-achieving high school student athletes in Michigan. 

“We would hate to have one of those every-10-year type kids that after their sophomore year of high school, the parents sit down and look at the economic landscape across the country and the kids would leave our state to go somewhere else,” he said.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.