IHSA has new rules for name, image and likeness. What that means for Illinois athletes

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star

LeBron James and Tom Brady earn far more money for endorsements than they do for playing. College players got into the action in 2021, when the NCAA allowed players to sell their name, image and likeness (NIL).

Now Illinois high school players can, too.

“I think it’s pretty neat for the kids,” said Brett McAllister, the boys basketball coach at Rockford Boylan, which has won 20 games in 34 of the last 38 seasons with 30 regional titles in that span. “They are so tuned into their social media. It’s their brand. Their image and likeness is quite important to them.

“With everything trickling down to the college level to high school, we could all see this coming.”

NIL rules for the IHSA: A look at the full by-law from the Illinois High School Association

What are the IHSA rules for NIL?

The IHSA added a lot of wording to its original proposal when schools approved the amendment on Dec. 20. For starters, it doubled the limit players could earn from $75 to $150 for selling their NIL.

Coaches thought the first number was clearly too low. Rockford East coach Roy Sackmaster, who led the E-Rabs to a fourth-place finish in state in 2019, said “$75 gets you a tank of gas these days. That number didn’t make sense. Why not higher so it makes a difference to a kid. And if it is being monitored and regulated, why have a number at all? Why limit it?”

The extra wording also said no school or person representing the school can pay a player for his or her NIL and that the student cannot use any logo, name or mascot affiliated with the IHSA or a school in any NIL activity. Rules also prohibit an athlete from using school facilities as part of an NIL deal, and also limit the types of products or activities a high school athlete can promote, like tobacco or gambling.

Tim Thornton, who coached Peoria High to within a point of a state football title, losing 45-44 last month in the Class 5A finals, also thinks $150 might be too low. But better, he said, to start too low than too high. The NCAA’s loose NIL rules turned college football into what Forbes called “the wild west overnight.” Alabama football coach Nick Saban told Forbes that quarterback Bryce Young made almost $1 million off his name before he started his first college game.

Peoria head coach Tim Thornton chats with an official during the Lions game against Manual on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022 at Peoria Stadium.

“If they think the kids have value enough to let them make money off this, then they should be allowed to make money off it,” Thornton said. “I am not sure which limits are right and which limits are wrong, but I am glad they have limits and would rather have them tiptoe into it rather than colleges, who threw it all out there and are now trying to reel it in.

“It’s definitely in its infant stages. It could go in a bunch of different directions, but it’s something we want to get in front of. I called some college coaches who already had to deal with it. I’ve gotten with head coaches and talked about what’s the best way we could advise our kids.”

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The 'gray areas' of NIL rules

Half of all U.S. states will now allow high school athletes to make money off their names. But none of them have done so for long. This is new to everyone. And coaches worry about how it will be enforced.

“Why not let the players benefit from their own success? Why only let others benefit?” said Sackmaster, who has coached East to its only two NIC-10 boys basketball titles of the last 40 years. “The only concern I have is who is going to track all this and regulate it? Even with our contact limits in the summer, it’s all self-regulated. I can’t believe the IHSA has the manpower to regulate 700 schools.”

Coaches fear a line in the IHSA handbook that says athletes are not confined to the monetary limit if they start their own company.

“What does that mean exactly?” Sackmaster said. “If I create my own Instagram page and social media starts to pay me because I am getting enough hits, does that constitute a business? Or do they have to go through the normal filing of any other business? Is a high school kid expected to do that? There are a lot of gray areas in there. Maybe it’s a trial and error thing, where some of the states want to learn from the other states how to do it.”

East boys basketball coach Roy Sackmaster gestures during a game against Guilford in 2020.

Harlem football coach Bob Moynihan, who led the Huskies to the third round of the playoffs for the first time in school history this year, said he thinks basketball players will probably make more money off their NIL than football players. He doesn’t oppose allowing players to make money off their image, but he’s leery of abuse.

“Right now high school sports were the purest form of sports,” Moynihan said. “They didn’t have salaries. Now with NIL, you are getting all of that. The purity of the game is going to go down to eighth grade.

“But they also passed where these flesh peddlers can’t talk to the kids anymore. I think they are going to go after that pretty hard,” he said of the amendment that forbids coaches and athletic directors from speaking with AAU and travel coaches about any athlete.

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The future of NIL is now

But the next time Rockford has a James Robinson who breaks the state rushing records or Peoria has a Malachi Washington, who ran for 3,348 yards and 53 touchdowns this year, you will not only see their names in the paper and their highlights on TV but will probably see their billboards all around town. Even if that means they have to start their own company to do so.

“The start your own company part is pretty cool,” said Boylan’s McAllister, who has the Titans tied for first place in the NIC-10 basketball race this year. “That’s a big part of the younger generation and now a lot of people are making money in today’s economy. The fact that they can get started early if they are interested will pay dividends for them as they move into the future.

“I am amazed with what the students know with that social influencer segment of the economy. I would not be surprised if this has a bigger impact than we expect. There is no doubt as we navigate this it will have an effect somewhere that we are not seeing today.”

Contact: mtrowbridge@rrstar.com, @matttrowbridge or 815-987-1383. Matt Trowbridge has covered sports for the Rockford Register Star for over 30 years, after previous stints in North Dakota, Delaware, Vermont and Iowa City.