Station Camp football coach Brent Alexander talks to his team after their win over Mt. Juliet in 2021.

Questions need to be answered before the state of Tennessee ever allows high school athletes to be compensated for their Name, Image and Likeness.

Among them, what, exactly, would NIL look like here?

“I’m glad I don’t have to deal with it, let’s put it that way,” Springfield football coach Dustin Wilson said, acknowledging the issue has become so layered and rife with scenarios that implementing it would be a challenge.

Right now, Tennessee doesn’t have NIL legislation permitting high school athletes to benefit, but the topic has quickly moved from conversational to tangible in the past year with nine states passing NIL-friendly bylaws; they are not rules making way for massive collectives evident at the Power 5 level but rather limited entry points for athletes who could earn money or services.

“It (NIL) will be something the state association at some point will need to address,” said Bernard Childress, whose 13-year tenure as TSSAA executive director ends this month.

Childress wouldn’t take the leap to say if he thinks NIL will become reality in Tennessee — he reminds people that member schools ultimately hold the final say — but with NIL demanding more attention, it bears asking how it might look in Nashville-area schools and how other states have implemented it.

Even National Federation of State High School Associations executive director Karissa Niehoff when holding court on the topic last week did not appear as bullish as she did a year ago about high schools keeping NIL at bay.

“High school students can enjoy some success with NIL,” she said, “but it cannot be done while wearing the school uniform.”

Would NIL be a fit in Tennessee?

Childress said he has received inquiries about NIL from high schools that have higher-profile athletes who have been approached about compensation opportunities. All he can really do is remind them of the TSSAA amateurism rule.

Article II, Section 18 of the TSSAA constitution says athletes cannot maintain their amateur status if they use their knowledge of athletics or their athletic skill for pay in the sports the TSSAA governs, or they will be ineligible for one calendar year and subject to reinstatement.

Some athletes, Childress said, have signed paid contracts once their high school senior seasons were completed. But while under the TSSAA they are subject to the amateur rule.

An important area of focus moving forward will be determining if Tennesse athletes could or should benefit from a more flexible, or NIL-friendly, TSSAA amateurism rule.

Summit twins Destin and Keaten Wade, who will be freshmen at Kentucky next season, regularly had flocks of kids wanting autographs or pictures after their games. Players who have a high profile in sports-driven communities — whether they are bound for a Power 5 program or not — could stand to benefit.

Among states with NIL legislation, Alaska, Kansas, New Jersey and Nebraska created room for athletes to receive compensation for teaching or instructing activities, provided those athletes don’t promote school insignia or play for the teams they instruct.

If, for example, a player with Destin Wade’s profile wanted to host a quarterback camp for compensation, as long as there was no school affiliation, Summit coach Brian Coleman said he would have no problem with that.

“I see Destin work with kids — they love him — and he’d actually be working, instructing and earning (from it),” Coleman said. “That would be awesome, and I think parents would love that.”

Coleman and other coaches also see a negative side of NIL. High school sports are among the final training grounds to breed team concepts and loyalty before athletes begin college or professional jobs, and many of the athletes are not yet adults. Opponents of high school NIL opportunities believe money could threaten the learning environment, especially if NIL were to expand as it has at the NCAA level.

“It would be all about where can I get my money now? If this school offers this much in this community, I’ll go there,” he said, referring to the collectives and NIL agencies that have been normalized at the NCAA level.

That scenario would threaten Metro Nashville Public Schools, where students from low-income households could greatly benefit from additional income. But an exodus of the best athletes at those schools would threaten the long-term stability of the athletic programs. East Nashville coach Jamaal Stewart doesn’t see that promoting a healthy education atmosphere.

“Recruiting is already bad as it is in Middle Tennessee. It would expand all the ridiculousness if that was added. We definitely don’t need that at the high school level right now,” said Stewart, whose team reached a football state championship game for the first time in school history last season.

“What it would do,” he added, “is take the focus off Friday night lights and turn into Friday night payday.”

Christ Presbyterian Academy coach Ingle Martin learned where the amateurism boundary was when he played quarterback at Florida and Furman. He wonders what the Nashville market — which would ultimately incentivize players — even looks like right now. How might it expand? Who would the business players be?

Those aren’t easy questions. For instance, if a top prospect is verbally committed to Tennessee, and a Nashville-area Vols fan unaffiliated with the university wanted to keep it that way, could they run an advertisement during the TV game of the week with that player in it? It’s uncertain if that kind of market exists yet.

“There is (so much money) in college football. I just think high school football is a little bit different because no one is selling TV deals for high school networks or putting 20,000 people in the seats,” Martin said. “I don’t know if it’s sustainable. I think there’s a way people think it should be done, but I certainly would be a person that would be on the side of trying to continue to let athletics at the high school level be about the education first and not making money as a high school athlete.

“The bottom line is, businesses work because they make money, so if someone can figure out how to package and sell high school athletics on a consistent basis, then maybe it happens. But I don’t know if it’s going to be widespread.”

Coleman said he could envision a NIL bylaw that allows athletes free food or similar products or to make a paid appearance as long as school insignia isn’t represented.

“With the Wades, they were so loved, I could see that happening. Everybody loved them,” Coleman said. “I could see people in the Spring Hill area really taking advantage of that.”

Then, of course, there’s social media, which allows users to take control and create their own business markets. A well-followed athlete could quite easily promote a product on Twitter, TikTok or Instagram without wearing their high school uniform or insignia.

How NIL works in states that permit it

Bryson Warren is the No. 41 ranked 2023 prospect nationally according to the 247Sports Composite. Though based in Little Rock, Ark., he joined New York-based agency Overtime Elite, which offers a base salary of $100,000 annually. The agency gives athletes a competitive playing schedule and enrolls them in classes to work toward a diploma.

Overtime Elite deals in both entertainment and athletics. New York and California were among the first to step into the NIL space because of the higher number of high school actors, actresses and musicians who live there, a point Niehoff brought up in her June address.

Warren’s salary might make people pause, and the headlines of his earnings splash off the page. But that money is not from an endorsement tied to a state association member school, and because it’s paid through an agency his status is considered professional.

Among states permitting high school NIL — Alaska, California, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York and Utah — six have begun defining NIL parameters, and no state yet allows athletes to make money while wearing their member school uniform, insignia or other school endorsements.

Alaska, Kansas New Jersey, and Nebraska are among the states to provide a compensation path for athletes through private instruction.

A future discussion

TSSAA member schools don’t have to navigate NIL decisions right now. Only several have inquired about the possibility, Childress said, and none have pushed back against the TSSAA’s amateur rule.

Future discussion about high school pay-for-play will be shaped in part by what happens in other states, how many pass legislation and what their rules look like.

Perhaps the only certainty is, “this is something that isn’t going away,” Childress said.

As NIL weaves its way into the fabric of sports — it was first permitted just last year at the NCAA level — it’s feasible that schools, parents or athletes in favor of NIL bylaws could take legal action against state associations that don’t allow it.

The final word on NIL would still rest with a vote among member schools, which Niehoff said may have the most powerful voice at the end of the day due to experience in their areas and their access to local data. She also said state associations should write and lean on sturdy bylaws if they want to have a more powerful voice in a legislative setting.

“I don’t feel comfortable saying it (NIL) will happen or won’t happen (in Tennessee),” Childress said. “But is there a possibility that a school will present this to the membership? That’s always a possibility with any of our bylaws.”

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