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High School Sports

D.C. Considers Granting High School Athletes NIL Rights

at El Camino College on March 14, 2017 in Torrance, California.
Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Scholastic administrators in Washington, D.C., are now working on giving athletes in the city’s high schools the same right to earn NIL (“name, image, and likeness”) money that the NCAA began granting college athletes just last year. One city employee involved in the effort predicted rules will soon be in place allowing prep stars to profiteer on their renown. “It’s not permitted now, but that’s going to change,” said the city staffer, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media. “We’re not in the business of restricting kids. We won’t stand in the way.”

Kenny Owens, executive director of the District of Columbia State Athletic Association, the sanctioning body for sports in all the city’s public, private and charter schools, confirmed that his agency is intent on promulgating a plan to allow NIL payments. 

“The DCSAA has been following the issue closely and is studying proposals that would allow D.C. athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness,” Owens said.

NIL deals are a hot topic in amateur athletics right now. Tales of high schoolers cashing in where it’s legal abound. Late last month, Bronny James, a junior basketball star at Sierra Canyon School in Los Angeles, signed a deal with PSD Underwear. James did not say how much he’d be paid to hawk undies, but recruiting and sports marketing publication ON3 projected the 17-year-old son of LeBron James could make more than $5 million in endorsements as a schoolboy jock if he fully leveraged his fame. 

James is allowed to cash in and still play high school sports under California codes, but that’s not currently the norm. According to a survey from Opendorse, a Nebraska-based group at the forefront of advocating for athletes in sports where professionals were previously prohibited, California is one of only five states that allow scholastic athletes to receive financial compensation for NIL; Kansas, Nebraska, New Jersey, and New York are the others. The NIL issue is murky in Maine and Vermont. All other states and the District of Columbia expressly prohibit players from procuring such proceeds, according to the Opendorse survey.

Texas is among those where NIL deals are banned for high schoolers. That state’s status became big news in schoolboy recruiting circles last summer when Quinn Ewers, a highly rated quarterback from Southlake Carroll High School, began openly pondering quitting high school a year early and enrolling in college to take advantage of the NIL opportunities that were just becoming available to NCAA athletes. Ewers ultimately announced he would indeed give up his senior year of high school and go for NIL dollars. Just after enrolling at Ohio State, ESPN reported that Ewers had gotten multiple product endorsement deals, including a $1.4 million pact with GT Sports Marketing to provide autographs. 

Kenny Owens told me about DCSAA’s interest in promulgating NIL rules just as the 2022 DCSAA boys and girls basketball tournaments were getting underway. (Though D.C. is not a state, the annual event to determine prep hoops supremacy in the city has been called a “state championship” since 2013, in part to get people talking about how residents here are denied many of the constitutional rights, such as representation in Congress, granted folks in the rest of the country.) According to DCSAA, the D.C. Council would have to approve NIL rights for scholastic athletes in the city before kids could get paid. 

There was plenty of evidence of money that’s already in high school sports in D.C., cash that the kids are banned from getting—for now. Take the broadcast fees. Two teams in the DCSAA tournament, Gonzaga College High School and St. John’s College High School, came to the event right after participating in the postseason tournament for the powerhouse Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC). The league had sold broadcast rights to its tournament to 1st Amendment Sports, a local media company that charged a whopping $50 to stream this year’s WCAC tournament. (St. John’s athletes have long been used as billboards for Under Armour. The company was founded by St. John’s alum Kevin Plank, who has given untold millions of dollars to his alma mater. In return there’s been so much hawking of Under Armour gear on the school’s website readers could believe the St. John’s motto is, “Two Brands, One Family,”

And DCSAA sold broadcast rights to its 2022 state basketball tournament to NFHS Network, another streaming service that charges $10.95 a month or $69.95 a year. The NFHS deal was a bad one for fans of Wilson High School, the best D.C. public school team this year. Wilson had streamed games for free all year through Wilson Live, an online network run by students. In the second quarter of Wilson’s semifinal game against Gonzaga, a grown-up in the press box halted the broadcast, first by standing in front of the Wilson Live camera to block the game view, then ordering the kids doing play-by-play to pull the plug on their stream. 

David Thompson, an instructional coach at Wilson who organizes the volunteer Wilson Live crew, told me the order to kill the free telecast came from DCSAA to curry favor with its vendor, NFHS. “I thought what they did was strongarm and kind of stinky,” said Thompson.” We didn’t know we didn’t have the right to stream it.” (Unrelated but too odd to ignore: As the awkward takedown was playing out online, the Wilson Live camera caught a cameo appearance by Supreme Court Justice and D.C. high school hoops gadfly Brett Kavanaugh taking in the action at Georgetown’s McDonough Arena.) 

The arena was full of promotional materials from paying sponsors. You couldn’t walk far without stepping on discarded coupons for free or reduced-price coffee and doughnuts from Wawa. Timeout entertainment at the championship game included something called a Domino’s Pizza Hot Shot Challenge. Ads in the complementary tournament program and on the scoreboard advised athletes to “Refuel With Chocolate Milk,” a nod to the American Dairy Association’s sponsorship of the event. Winning teams posed for photographers in front of a big backdrop with logos for United Bank.

The DCSAA tournament had players with enough star power to get endorsements of their own, were they permitted. The girls’ team from Sidwell Friends came as the top-ranked team in the country, and was led by supremely charismatic and gifted senior guard Kiki Rice, who was named the 2022 national Naismith Player of the Year. 

A half-hour after Sidwell’s 70-26 blowout of rival and fellow prissy prep Maret School in the state semifinals, Rice was still in her uniform signing autographs for fans. Unlike Quinn Ewers, she couldn’t get paid for her signature.