Why this matters
Philadelphia is just one city trying to create rules around NIL for the community's youngest athletes, using these financial opportunities as a chance to rethink youth sports overall.
Philadelphia city councilmember Isaiah Thomas considers himself a realist about what’s coming to youth sports. With Pennsylvania becoming the latest state to allow high school athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL), just like college athletes, Thomas believes families need help navigating a more confusing and predatory landscape.
Thomas worries young people could sign contracts in which someone controls their image or likeness for a lifetime, with little to no compensation, because families failed to read the fine print. He worries young people won’t know to plan for their responsibilities to pay taxes on endorsement money. He worries too many young people lack financial literacy on how to invest this potential new money and secure a good credit score.
“I’m not quite sure if NIL at this age is a good or bad thing,” Thomas, who is not the retired National Basketball Association star by the same name, said. “I would have rather seen us better prepared for the moment we’re in. Everything is happening so fast, but it’s already here. I don’t waste much time on whether we should have NIL deals. I’m focused on whether it’s done in a legal, ethical way.”
NIL is filled with unknowns for youth sports. Some families with children as young as 8 years old are pursuing NIL opportunities, raising questions on what’s the right balance between financial gain and pressure on children to succeed. The answers could determine whether our already highly commercialized youth sports system, in which team sports participation for kids ages 6 to 12 declined from 45% to 37% over the past decade, leaves more children behind by creating new conditions for predatory behavior by adults.
Thomas’ proposed Philly NIL Youth Protection Act would be the nation’s first set of consumer protections related to NIL. If passed, and with stable financing through public-private partnerships, Philadelphia students whose families make less than $150,000 would receive up to five billable hours with a lawyer and/or accountant to help with NIL contract negotiation support. Educational materials would be created and distributed to every Philadelphia high school student eligible for NIL deals.
What the law would not do is protect children from their own parents, some of whom are suddenly realizing they have an underage cash cow living in their home who can earn incremental family income.
“Parents exploiting their children is a significant concern,” Thomas said. “From a government perspective, we’re very limited in what we can do, and that’s alarming to me. If the guardian benefits from a young person, are we putting more pressure on young people to not simply be a child?”
“Parents are between a rock and a hard place,” said Dr. Travis Dorsch, associate professor and founding director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State University. “On the one hand, you could say let’s not worry about a return on investment and let children grow into their bodies. But parents are taking more of a CEO and entrepreneurial approach to their kids now. The last thing you want is to be blindsided or naïve to the possibility that you could set your child up for a better life.”
We are only at the early stages of how early sport specialization, NIL, and mental health will intersect and affect children. For parents to successfully navigate this new world – filled with lawyers, agents, social media influencers, and NIL money now attached to college scholarship dreams – their children’s mental health and identities must be their main considerations.
“What does it look like if I’m a teenager and my relationship with my parents is so predicated on performance?” asked Nick Buonocore, founder of the Reformed Sports Project. “Now if I don’t perform, I can’t generate extra income for my family. Talk about added pressure.”
What Youth Sports History Reveals About NIL
There’s a blueprint for how NIL may impact youth sports. In recent decades, the model for kids to play sports became increasingly commercialized, driven by the chase for college scholarships and college admissions. Parents didn’t create this chaos; they inherited a confusing system and have had to play by the rules of others around them.
Travel sports, often costly and time-consuming, became the go-to route for youth just to make their high school teams, let alone eventually play in college. Today's children specialize in one sport at younger ages than their predecessors did – despite research showing that playing one sport year-round can increase the risk of burnout and overuse injuries. Meanwhile, expensive and intensive youth sports leagues cause more affordable, quality, local sports programming to disappear, leaving many kids unable to even access sports.
What happens when NIL gets thrown into this equation is no longer a hypothetical question: The NIL chase is already trickling down to young ages.
The Washington Post highlighted second-grade twin basketball players whose father sees a shifting environment for exposure and wants his kids to become the youngest players in the country to land a lucrative NIL deal. Everything the boys do is part of their brand. The dad curates social media feeds, edits YouTube highlight videos, and touts how his sons are ranked the top second-graders in the country.
“That’s part of my strategy: Build their name up, build the expectations up, build their skills up, build their bodies up so that by the time they get to high school, these companies are going to pay them to play,” the father told The Post. “We want to do it as early as possible. I believe we’re going to be the pioneers.”
Madden San Miguel, a third-grade football player nicknamed “Baby Gronk” after the legendary National Football League tight end Rob Gronkowski, has endorsement deals, including promoting CHAMPS Sports in ads selling Madden's competitive spirit. Madden builds his brand through social media with 188 million total views on TikTok highlights, 284,000 Instagram followers, and 29,000 YouTube subscribers. Madden’s father told Bay News 9 he’s trying to give his son a better life so he has money in case playing professional sports doesn’t pan out.
“Every athlete has a certain point in their career when they’re most marketable. This could be the peak for Baby Gronk,” said Braly Keller, an NIL specialist who studies high school trends for Opendorse, a marketing platform for athletes. “Young people are being used in marketing, and that’s not incredibly new.
"You saw this 20 years ago with JCPenney catalogs. Social media has evolved that to make kid influencers more readily available. It does make sense that the parents are the most trusted individuals in the child’s life to negotiate contracts.”
Possible Consequences of NIL in Youth Sports
Kevin Griffin, whose son Konnor is rated the No. 1 prep baseball player in the 2024 class by numerous publications, regularly receives inquiries from random parents asking how to cash in on NIL opportunities. Because Konnor lives in a state (Mississippi) that doesn’t permit endorsements for high school athletes, Kevin estimates Konnor has missed out on $50,000 to $100,000 so far in his baseball career.
“It’s not disappointing for us as parents because we’ve made do with what we’ve had this long, so what’s another two years?” Kevin said. “But let’s say Konnor wanted to cut 10 yards tomorrow and make money, I’d say, ‘No problem, I’ll help you do it.’ To me NIL is no different than cutting grass, and we’re having to turn it down.”
On the other hand, Kevin worries where NIL is headed. He often sees parents shopping their oblivious children around for travel team opportunities and fears this practice will intensify with NIL in the equation. Konnor grew up as a three-sport athlete (he still plays on the high school basketball team) because the family believes playing several sports can be a big benefit.
“I don’t want him to come back 10 years down the road and say, ‘I missed out on being a kid,’” Kevin said. “If a kid at age 10 or 11 is getting NIL deals, I don’t know how they can appreciate the value of a dollar if they’re already being exploited by their own parents at young ages.”
In the best-case scenario, NIL opportunities in youth sports will impact only a small number of uniquely talented athletes who learn valuable business and marketing skills at a young age, said Andrew Petcash, who analyzes the business of athletes and NIL for Profluence Sports. This scenario would still support participation in sports by embracing the physical, social, emotional, and academic benefits that many parents hope their children gain by participating.
“The worst case is NIL becomes the main reason kids play, it’s all keeping up with the Joneses, and sports become secondary,” said Petcash, who knows of a football helmet company (he requested the identity of the company remain anonymous) providing endorsements to children as young as 12. “I think that worst-case scenario is very unlikely, but that would really hurt sports as a whole.”
Currently, 27% of youth sports parents perceive that their child’s lost interest in playing sports is a barrier to participation, according to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative. The more money parents have, the less interest their child has in sports, suggesting that wealthier children’s experiences haven’t been optimal. The average child spends less than three years playing a sport, quitting by age 11. The biggest reason kids stop playing: The sport just isn’t fun anymore.
By throwing NIL into this mix, travel and school sports teams may create “a bit of a caste system,” said Dorsch, the Utah State researcher. “You’re going to have coaches catering to some families based on NIL deals so they can put it on brochures that their athletes went to colleges and got NIL money. It’s going to become a service industry rather than what youth sports was originally designed for: to have positive individual and community development, even though the current system has its own limitations.”
Dorsch said the benefits of youth sports won’t necessarily disappear with NIL in the picture. But he plans to closely monitor the motivations of parents and children.
One concern is NIL could become a driving factor for many families to play sports, much like the current chase for college scholarships and admissions. More children might never develop an intrinsic love of sports as a result. More parents might lose sight of the value of sports participation if they perceive no return on investment. More travel sports teams and leagues might cater to families pursuing NIL money, further depleting the pool of families and resources for community-based leagues.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, parents are doing this from a place of love to give their kids the best experience,” Dorsch said. “I can see a lot of parents falling into a trap that in order to help their child, they need a shoe, apparel, or car deal so the child theoretically goes to college and they’re financially independent. I can see a lot of dumpster fires happening due to this.”
Solutions to Help Parents
We know this looming problem is coming. So how to begin addressing it now?
First, parents need education. Lots of it. Most parents currently don’t understand how the college recruiting process operates and the scope of athletic scholarships. Scholarships are mostly partial and often not as lucrative as parents hope, with the average Division I scholarship around $18,000 and much less for lower divisions. Many families are confused about the right pathways for their children to try to earn scholarships. Multiply this confusion tenfold with NIL, which is a foreign concept to the vast majority of parents.
The Philly NIL Youth Protection Act would create educational materials outlining relevant definitions, data, risks, and benefits to help families easily understand NIL, plus free consultations to help negotiate contracts. These resources would not come from Philadelphia’s city government but rather through private-sector partners who get compensated. It’s not clear which private organizations would partner on these services if the law gets passed. That information will be important to ensure families receive good advice.
Thomas, the Philadelphia councilmember, has no idea yet how much money would be needed annually to fund this initiative. Since NIL is so new and many endorsement deals often go undocumented publicly, Thomas said, Philadelphia would need a trial basis to determine annual funding. “We’d love to see some of our pro sports teams and local universities buy in,” he said. “That would be ideal public-private partnerships.”
Educating parents about NIL also means reflecting on what it means to be a parent. So many factors influence parenting that it’s impossible to divorce sports parenting from regular parenting. Sadly, too often abuses occur in youth sports because the chase for competitive success blinds the parents to what children really need physically and emotionally.
The setting shouldn’t matter if a child becomes physically or mentally harmed or struggles with a sense of identity. The more we embrace this intersection – sports parenting is also regular parenting – the better off children will be.
Parents can ask themselves how their actions in sports impact their children’s development, motivation, and sense of identity so that they don’t sacrifice their children’s present for the future.
“Keeping up with both the short and long term is really important for parents,” Dorsch said. “That’s asking a lot of parents. It used to be, sign up your child for sports, get them to games, and bring them halftime snacks. Now there’s lawyers and agents for their kids.”
Parents often don’t understand they “control the keys of the kingdom” over how sports operate for their children, even if it doesn’t feel that way, said Buonocore, who added that he, too, used to be overly consumed by his kids’ travel sports experiences. “Parents don’t need to focus on the 7% who play in college. We need to help the 93% who don’t and have sports opportunities for them.”
That means recognizing that every child has the right to play sports and, when in the care of adults, children have human rights that they are born with and need to be respected. In high schools, where sports participation is declining and schools face diminished capacities, it’s also time to reimagine the school sports model so it meets the needs and desires of students.
For star athletes and creative young people who build social media followings, NIL endorsements can be incredibly valuable. But only as long as there’s balance.
NIL is here. There’s no turning back. It’s going to continue trickling down into sports at young ages. The unknown aspect of these changes is how we remake youth sport around NIL, and that’s all up to us.
Jon Solomon is editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, whose main initiative is Project Play. Learn more about Project Play here.
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