High school athletes' new sponsorship options kick up debate among coaches

A woman winds up to kick a soccer ball during practice
MN Aurora FC player Bayliss Flynn kicks a ball during practice in July at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minn. Flynn also is a player on the Edina High School team and has a name, image and likeness deal.
Ben Hovland | MPR News file

At the start of a new high school sports season in Minnesota teams hold tryouts, scrimmages, and first games. For a few of Minnesota’s best-known players, there is a new opportunity to make money.

In June, the Minnesota State High School League approved guidance that allows students to sign name, image and likeness (NIL) deals. That means companies can contract with students to advertise or endorse products.

Proponents are excited for the opportunity to give athletes a chance to make some money and get business experience. But some coaches and experts are worried about how pay for some will change high school athletics.

Bayliss Flynn of Edina High School was the first Minnesota student known to cash in on the opportunity. Flynn is a goalie on Edina’s varsity soccer team, and she also played for the Minnesota Aurora in the team’s inaugural season. Just days after the state league issued its guidance, she signed an NIL deal with TruStone Financial Credit Union.

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Katie Aafedt is Flynn’s coach at Edina High School. She was excited that the first NIL deal in the state went to her athlete— and to a woman.

“I think these athletes work so hard, and this is kind of their lifelong passion, especially by the time they get to high school,” Aafedt said. “It’s a great reward.”

Basketball coach Larry McKenzie is more concerned. He coached for 42 years, most recently with the boys basketball team at Minneapolis North High School. His record of six state championships over the course of his career landed him in the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.

In July, he announced his retirement from coaching. NIL was one of the reasons he cited for leaving.

“It was a big part of my decision-making of getting out,” he said. “I personally just think it’s going to create a lot of additional chaos for coaches.”

The NIL debate recently trickled down to the high school level from the college level. In July 2021, the NCAA enacted a rule that college athletes could take NIL deals.

In Minnesota, such deals were already allowed for high schoolers — there is no state law saying students cannot enter these contracts.

But the rule gets a little more complicated for athletes. National rules governing high school sports require that students be amateurs. If students get paid to play, they violate their amateur status and lose their eligibility to compete at the high school level.  

NIL deals do not technically pay students to play. They pay students for the use of their name or image to endorse products or advertise for companies.

Minnesota State High School League Executive Director Erich Martens said the league’s priority with its guidance was to clarify those rules.

“Our students are pretty incredible entrepreneurs in lots of different ways,” Martens said. “They’re able to capture revenue in ways that maybe generations before them hadn't really thought about or didn't exist. This hopefully helps them to do that in a safe way.”

The guidelines include a few limitations. Athletes can’t wear their school uniforms or mention their team in ads, and contracts can’t compensate students for specific athletic achievements, like points scored.

But even though the rule technically keeps students in the amateur category, some worry that it’ll change the game.

One of McKenzie’s concerns is equity. He worries that students at wealthier schools will end up getting more deals, and that students will want to transfer to those schools for the NIL opportunities.

Minnesota’s policy says that NIL contracts can’t induce a student to attend a certain high school or transfer somewhere else. But McKenzie thinks this will happen informally. Students already want to go to the schools with the best uniforms, the nicest locker rooms, and the newest facilities, and with NIL he thinks a history of contracts will be added to that list.

“Everybody knows there are already outside influences. I don’t know why you wouldn’t think that money would be a factor,” McKenzie said. “It’s not intended for that, but it’s going to happen.”

Chris Pham is a lawyer in Minneapolis who specializes in sports and entertainment law. He began following NIL law as it took effect nationwide at the college level last summer. He shares McKenzie’s concerns about equity.

He has heard from college parents who say their kids are switching from where they are committed to play based on rumors that athletes at other schools have NIL deals. Colleges are not allowed to use promises of NIL deals to recruit, either — but he believes it is happening anyway. He foresees the same thing happening in high school.

“There are some schools, even at the high school level, that have more resources,” Pham said. “If they have that drawing power and that ability to create opportunities, I don’t see why that would be any different ... than it is at the college level in terms of improper recruiting.”

McKenzie saw students and their parents stressing over each other’s stats.

“We’re already dealing with who gets the most shots and who gets the most playing time, and now we’ve gotta deal with who makes the most money,” he said.

Even though Aafedt is not too worried about NIL, she does worry about some of the other changes in the world of high school sports. She started coaching more than 20 years ago.

“The pressure is tenfold what it was even five years ago,” she said. “I’m much more worried about mental health and their physical bodies.”

Now she sees mounting expectation for students to be year-round athletes. Sticking to a single sport all year is physically tough, she said, as is the goal so many have to play at top collegiate levels.

Students also depend on social media to gain name recognition which can lead to NIL deals.

Aafedt says she is proud of her athletes for using social media to speak out about issues that matter to them, too.

McKenzie advises athletes interested in NIL to seek help from attorneys who can walk students through the conditions and tax responsibilities they are signing up for. Like any business agreement, he says, NIL deals are not something to take lightly.

Amid the changes, Aafedt said she continues coaching because there are athletes with passion for the sport that transcends winning and pay.

“I would say a significant portion of them are here because they truly love it. I have not seen a downshift in that.”