Florida high schoolers plunge head first into NIL waters — part of sea change for young athletes

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Florida high schoolers plunge head first into NIL waters — part of sea change for young athletes

TAMPA, Fla. — The wave of new rules that have transformed the college sports landscape and empowered student-athletes to earn money off of their name, image and likeness has found another fertile home: high school athletics.

Dozens of states — from New York to California and now Florida — are all backing student-athletes in a paradigm shift in sports.

Florida becomes one of more than 30 states and D.C. to give high school athletes the green light, but with plenty of guardrails. That includes parents or guardians being involved in the process for any deal.

Orlando-area wide receiver Vernell Brown III, one of the top high school recruits in the country, says the moment feels significant —and rewarding.

“Just like collegiate athletes and professional athletes who put that time in working hard, I think high school athletes put that in as well,” he told NBC News. “They’re grinding to get to that next level, so I definitely think there should be some benefit … that pays off for their hard work and ultimately gives us a financial jump-start in life.”

Brown — who has whittled down his list of college suitors from 44 to a handful of some of the most prestigious programs in the country including Ohio State, Florida State and the University of Miami — has already inked a deal with Adidas.

He joins six other prominent players in an agreement the company has promoted on social media and says marks its first with high school football athletes.

The deal cannot go into effect until July, however, when the Florida State Board of Education votes to ratify the new rules.

“I’m extremely grateful for it,” Brown said. “I think it definitely means more of being on the forefront [of NIL in Florida].” 

The checks and balances surrounding the state’s rules are numerous and meant to protect against abuse.

Those bylaws address everything from what products students can endorse (alcohol, gambling and vaping are prohibited), to a ban on so-called collectives used at the collegiate level to lure top players with lucrative deals. The stipulations also require any student who transfers high schools to get an exemption from the county if they want to sign another NIL deal — aimed at preventing unfair competition for athletes.

For Brown and fellow participants at “OT7,” the 7-on-7 All-Star league where football players come from around the country to test their skills, the reach and voracious demand for high school athletics is apparent.

The NFL Network airs the league’s championship games live.

The production includes spider cams and elaborate celebrations with the type of video production you’d expect to find at MetLife Stadium where the New York Jets and Giants play, not the SportsPlex in Tampa.

“When you add the platform of the NFL Network it touches so many more people and exposes so many more people to what’s actually happening in high school athletics,” said Vernell Brown Jr., Brown’s father and a former college athlete himself.

The elder Brown now manages and mentors Indianapolis Colts quarterback Anthony Richardson and has witnessed firsthand how NIL rights have reshaped sports at multiple levels in recent years.

He said for families that have invested so much in their child’s development, and for the athletes who have worked so hard, these types of deals can be life-changing.

Vernell Brown III runs holding a football on the field, with Tyson Leau in the background
SFE’s Vernell Brown III against Lo-Pro’s Tyson Leau during the OT7 Orlando football tournament on April 27.Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP file

“I think it’s extremely critical,” he said. “When you look at families and specifically the population of the NFL, it’s predominantly African American athletes. So I think having this opportunity to kind of set yourself up and then your family … there’s obviously the financial piece with NIL, but I think just the platform is [also] bringing more notice.”

He added there is a lot of information parents need to know about financial literacy and the tax implications of signing endorsement deals.

“I think it’s important to have representation and somebody to help you with an agreement and make sure you understand what you’re signing,” Brown Jr. said. “The parents definitely need to be involved.”

The deals are largely structured to be one year in length or until the player enrolls in college, according to a spokesperson for Adidas.

As far as college programs that may be sponsored by a company that’s a direct competitor of, or different from, the athlete’s chosen brand partner in high school, Brown Jr. says that is not an issue since the deals are completed beforehand.

“They’re completely separate entities,” he explained. “That’s why it’s a one-year deal.”

For now, the 5-foot-11 Brown III, a rising senior who patterns his game after wide receivers like the Houston Texans’ Stefon Diggs and the Baltimore Ravens’ Zay Flowers, is just concerned about his performance on the field.

Brown plays for South Florida Express, an elite club team that has placed numerous stars in the NFL and right now is part of a meteoric ride for these young players at the OT7 games.

“No matter the stage, it’s still football,” he said.

But when asked about whether this stage is a game-changer for NIL and building a brand?

“Absolutely.”

Sam Brock

Sam Brock is an NBC News correspondent.

Carla Kakouris-Solarana

Carla Kakouris-Solarana is a Miami-based producer for NBC News.

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