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High school athlete endorsements as part of NIL proposal sparks debate in Ohio sports landscape

817 high school principals to vote on NIL proposal
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Posted at 3:18 PM, Apr 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-15 21:07:30-04

CINCINNATI — Lakota West junior safety Malik Hartford is prepared to capitalize on a name, image and likeness opportunity if it should arise starting in August.

"If NIL was able to come my senior year it would definitely be a big benefit for me," said Hartford, who verbally committed to play football at The Ohio State University last week. "I have a brand. I have a website. I just have to hold it to myself for now and wait until I'm technically allowed to."

Hartford - Ohio's No. 2 ranked football player in the 2023 class, according to 247 Sports - and his family have been prepared for NIL at the NCAA level by working on trademarks and URLs.

However, if an Ohio High School Athletic Association referendum item is approved in May, it could speed up that process starting Aug. 1.

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Lakota West 2023 safety Malik Hartford says he is prepared for a name, image and likeness opportunity his senior year of high school if the referendum item is passed by OHSAA member schools in May.

"He might make a little bit of money off it, get some exposure," said Jim Hartford, Malik's father. "But, also get experience with business and making money through business through his brand."

The OHSAA's 817 member high school principals will decide the fate of the NIL proposal in mid-May with the possible amendment of the OHSAA's amateur bylaw. The OHSAA staff prefers NIL to be decided by its membership instead of judicial or legislative intervention.

"I think the first thing is when people hear NIL they think, 'Oh my gosh kids are going to get paid to play football or basketball or track - those things,'" Ute said. "That's not what NIL is for us."

Ute likened NIL to a wave that he saw coming the past few years first through college athletics. The NCAA adopted NIL on July 1, 2021.

"We want to craft language here and take it out toward our principals for a vote based on getting ahead of that wave instead of allowing somebody else to determine what NIL should be," Ute said. "I think we would all agree that we want to keep amateurism in high school sports."

The NIL proposal quickly became the most discussed topic in Ohio high school sports last week.

"It's going to happen at some point, and probably sooner than we all think it will," Milford athletic director Aaron Zupka said. "I think the best thing we can do as AD's is embrace it and find creative ways to work with it to provide opportunities for our student-athletes."

The OHSAA has administrator meetings this month to discuss referendum items and are bound to have questions about how NIL could potentially impact high school sports on a daily basis.

"I think that's our job to our member schools if this passes is to help provide that education out to the schools on what their role should be and out to our families and our student-athletes on how to keep away from bad things happening," Ute said.

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OHSAA executive director Doug Ute said the state's governing body prefers to allow its member schools to decide on a name, image and likeness proposal instead of legislative or judicial intervention imposing the changes to the amateur bylaw.

National Federation of State High School Associations chief executive officer Dr. Karissa Niehoff wrote in July 2021 that the camaraderie of a high school sports team could be disrupted as a result of NIL.

Elder football coach Doug Ramsey wonders about the monitoring of NIL and if it could lead to additional recruiting, an OHSAA violation in its basic form.

"This was done in college because the amount of money the NCAA, universities and coaches make and they had a rule on their books that said athletes couldn't be paid," Ramsey said. "Not even close to the same deal in high school. Glad I'm nearing the end of my career."

The NIL proposal would allow high school student-athletes to sign endorsement agreements so long as their teams, schools and/or OHSAA logo are not used and provided the companies aren't synonymous with casinos, gambling, alcohol, drugs and tobacco.

A student-athlete who enters an NIL agreement would have to disclose the proposed agreement/contract to the OHSAA member school in order to adhere to the bylaw.

"The old school part of me is like, 'This is crazy,'" Lakota West football coach Tom Bolden said.

"But you know what? It's where we're at. It's that old adage where people get mad for coaches and players for making a ton of money. Well, somebody is paying him that money. Don't get mad at the players and don't get mad at the coaches and everything. Maybe the system is what it is."

Eight high school state associations permit NIL with several others considering its options, according to Opendorse, a Nebraska-based NIL company that provides technology to the athlete endorsement industry.

"I think it's a great idea - NIL," said Mount Notre Dame senior KK Bransford, a two-time Ohio Ms. Basketball recipient. "Especially other states are doing it so I kind of think it's a disadvantage if Ohio hasn't done it."

Bransford, who has signed with the University of Notre Dame, said NIL at the high school level could be challenging including potential friction among teammates. But, she said there is always that potential friction on a team.

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Mount Notre Dame basketball player KK Bransford was one of three McDonald's All Americans in Chicago in late March. Bransford is signed with the University of Notre Dame.

Bransford earned her first NIL deal last month when she autographed approximately 1,500 stickers and trading cards for Topps as part of the McDonald's All American Game in Chicago. Bransford said she was paid $5,000.

"Just like the Topps opportunity I've connected to those people who they've done partnerships with LeBron James, different big-time players, so it's just those connections for the future," Bransford said.

Ohio high school sports is looking toward the future with the possibility of NIL.

Bolden joked with former Lakota West football players Jyaire Brown, an Ohio State freshman cornerback, and offensive tackle Tegra Tshabola (Ohio State signee) about if NIL had been in place this past season.

"Think about 6-foot-6, 340-pound Tegra - what restaurant in West Chester, Liberty Township would not want a piece of him?" Bolden said. "...What better place if it does happen then be here in West Chester with the dudes that we got."

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