The NIL and Alabama High School athletics debate is here

Peter Woods entered the turf-laden field home of Thompson High last July as one of the top senior defensemen in the country. He was on his way to four straight Alabama State titles with a five-star ranking, and he invited friends and media to watch as he unveiled his college future.

Some recruits see the event as a party or a necessary ending to a tiring process. For Woods, the pomp had to fit the occasion. Sweets were rolled in on trolleys. Florida-based YouTuber football coach Haynes hosted a live stream. After a video played showing Woods selecting Clemson, cameras flooded Woods in the center of the room.

He posed in front of a school backdrop, lights flashing from a diamond necklace and strategically placed merchandise: water bottles, duffel bags and a crisp white T-shirt on Wood’s 6-foot-3, 270-pound frame, all with the ‘PWoo’ logo.

Woods and his parents, Jermaine and Devon, decided his night would be not just a celebration, but a brand “launch.” What they didn’t know at the time, however, was that the event pushed the boundaries of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) in Alabama high school sports.

The Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) adheres to the amateur policy. As director Alvin Briggs summarized in 2021, student athletes “cannot use (their) athletic ability to gain anything financially.” However, under the current guidelines, players retain their eligibility as long as they do not receive anything in return.

Woods did not sell any equipment during his visit to Thomspon. But for his signing event, knowing eyes would be on him, he made sure the signage was visible months before his win window opened. Basically, elite prospects and their families develop NIL strategies regardless of whether the AHSAA interferes or not.

Peter Woods engagement event

Peter Woods at his commitment ceremony on July 8, 2022 at Thompson High in Alabaster, Ala.

More than 25 state legislatures have moved to some form of NIL for non-collegiate athletes, according to an Opendorse database. That summer, Louisiana became the first southern association to change its mind. Tennessee began allowing businesses in mid-December. Last week, Georgia announced its plan to finally give high schoolers a chance to make money.

Several varsity coaches have confirmed to that out-of-state coaches are recruiting players in NIL-legal territories. Some fear that without a change in policy, the state will lag behind and lose talent. Others, like Nick Saban on Jan. 26 at a Montgomery hotel in front of hundreds of Alabama coaches, fear NIL would fundamentally change recruiting at high schools as it is doing at the college level.

An AHSAA representative declined to respond as to whether there has been a re-examination of the current protocol or whether they have investigated any eligibility cases raised by players receiving compensation. Meanwhile, the national debate continues as the next generation takes different approaches to building their “brand,” a collective term that combines their skills, personality, and online presence.

“I bet coach (Nick) Saban is going to change it,” Clay-Chalkville head coach Drew Gilmer said last summer. “This has to happen. Why would a boy stay in high school for another year when he can go to Louisiana and maybe make $100,000? I would also pack and move.”

The Alabama legislature was one of eight to change its NIL statutes in the collegiate ranks in 2022 to be less restrictive than originally passed after NCAA v. Alston. For example, Auburn employees can now help connect companies with students. What happens if the same model shows up on Friday night?

Experts have previously cited a ZERO education gap for students seeking information. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHSHS), of which Alabama is a member, has allowed individual organizations to set their own rules. At national scouting events, some Alabama players have heard that Yellowhammer State is likely to be among the final holdouts. However, from lawmakers to Karissa Niehoff, CEO of the NFHSHS, the feeling is widespread: There is an “increasing need” for guidance.

Gardendale vs. Parker Football

Gardendale’s Kelby Collins celebrates the firing of Parker’s Tyson Allen in Birmingham, Alabama, Saturday, September 17, 2022. (Mark Almond | [email protected])

Alabama enlisted and Hewitt-Trussville defense attorney Hunter Osborne is “pretty strong” on social media, he said. He knows that part of the game is interacting with the fans. Osborne asks himself three questions before posting: How will I benefit?; How is it viewed?; How will the fans love it?

“There’s a marketing and self-branding element that’s obviously important to these recruits. It’s smart business. It’s good business to start this early to deal with the things that you’re going to be dealing with in some way during this time,” said John Garcia Jr., Sports Illustrated’s director of recruiting.

Kelby Collins, a Florida Gator and Gardendale edge rusher, ran an internal reckoning. Advertisers want a big platform. Players want followers. Ergo, more followers mean more NIL money. Kelby, a child of few words, as his mother Donchelle Collins describes him, approached his younger brother Drew Collins, a junior at Gardendale with no formal training in digital media, about running a TikTok and YouTube channel on his behalf.

Both Osborne and Collins have their own wordmarks and have seen their NIL score increase on sites like On3 that attempt to quantify how much players are worth in promotional deals. Collins admitted the pressure of social media sometimes spoiled “the fun” of his senior year. His teammate, future Arkansas cornerback Dallas Young, said the players weren’t mature enough for NIL consequences.

“I don’t know how I feel overall,” said Parker running back and Tennessee signee Khalifa Keith. “You can’t take money out of a kid’s hand because you don’t understand what we’re going through.”

The other side of the argument is equally passionate. The flow of transfers is already weakening community ties, the coaches argue. Bringing in money would exacerbate the problems. Players used to grow up together and compete for state titles together. At NIL, a coach warned running backs fighting for carries in locker rooms. (Though in a recent survey of 1,000 student-athletes, only 8% said they’ve experienced locker room arguments caused by NIL deals.)

When asked what they thought of Alabama potentially bringing NIL to the high school, the coaches said it would be an “Armageddon” and a “travesty,” and predicted that the state “will fight tooth and nail.” would fight”. This is without accounting for the financial inequalities within AHSAA’s more than 500 member schools.

While some, like Vestavia Hills’ Robert Evans, said he already knows companies who would take their chance to give their local school a financial advantage, other coaches, like Parker’s Frank Warren, recognize that some programs are already struggling fund equipment and travel expenses and they could never compete with four-figure sponsorship deals.

“When it comes to Alabama, it’s going to be tough. This state is big and there are many rural schools with great athletes. I’m from Georgia, I live outside of Macon, Ga., and for a child to have an opportunity to graduate from a rural school and go to a school in Atlanta, they will do their best to help. Imagine kids down in Wilcox County or in the Black Belt being given the opportunity to drop out of your high school and go to a bigger program? Eventually it’s going to destroy some of these rural schools,” said Loachapoka offense coordinator Travis Carswell.

29-year-old head coach Jerry Hood summed up sentiment among the game’s longtime gatekeepers, as well as everyone else: NIL would “undermine an eroding sport.” At the Alabama Football Coaches Association convention that Saban was speaking at, Keith Ecker, executive director of Ecker Sports, also gave a presentation on the same topic to high school coaches. It was the next step in a partnership between the company and the ALFCA, which partnered in 2022.

Regardless of moral arguments or hesitation from state officials, Jermaine Woods and other parents consider their current situation. Booster-funded collectives contact prospects and offer pay-for-play scenarios against NCAA rules. Almost all Division I players have some sort of social media following, which is fueled by appearances on national television. Waiting to enroll in college to begin the NIL process would be “reactive,” and so the Woods didn’t raise their children to face life.

Devon Woods designed the “PWoo” logo after her son’s nickname on the team in 2020. She had over 10 years of hotel marketing experience and noticed the attention other parents gave them when they wore branded shirts on Friday nights. She researched what was and was not allowed by the AHSAA. They started ordering swag for friends. During the July engagement, Peter Woods promoted a merchandise table in the back of the room. They later said they gave away items and only accepted money as a “gift,” none of which went to Peter.

While Woods and other teens are pursuing millions of dollars worth of opportunities — and the AHSAA is silent — some Alabama families are bound together by foresight and have acted accordingly, according to them.

“They don’t wait for it to hit the shelf to let people know about it,” Jermaine Woods said. “…it was an introduction. It was in no way intended to affect NIL in Alabama.

“If (Peter’s) technique and opportunities are considered in football, it would be our responsibility to also support him in making sure that any opportunity that comes up in NIL is also pre-advised. … NIL became a reality, we wanted to make sure we were prepared.”

Nick Alvarez is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @nick_a_alvarez or email him [email protected].