Padecky: Cash for NIL, coming soon to a high school near you

Not today and not tomorrow, but sooner than we can imagine: High school athletes will be making money off their Name, Image and Likeness.

Absurd, some will say. Won’t happen. Can’t happen. Ridiculous. These are just kids. Teenagers. Let them be kids. Adulthood will come soon enough. They’re growing up too fast as it is. Isn’t the internet corrupting them enough?

Inevitable, others will say, after what happened last week. America is the land of opportunity. Find a need and fill it. A gifted athlete can help his financially strapped family. Mom won’t have to work two jobs. What pencil-pushing autocrat would be so cold to prevent that?

Lemme at it, still others will say. They will burst blood vessels getting in on the action. No qualms here. No hesitancy. No moral dilemma. If there’s a buck to be made, the free enterprise bloodhounds will sniff it out. And they won’t be polite about it. Money dissolves cultural niceties.

“I think it’s a no-brainer,” said Mike Baddeley, a Petaluma lawyer, once an eight-year member of the Petaluma City School Board, two of them as Board president. “I’m all for it.”

“There’s probably a very good possibility it will happen,” said Tom Bonfigli, the legendary basketball coach at Cardinal Newman, now at St. Vincent.

“It’s absolutely necessary to explore this point,” said Tony Keefer, 39, the two-time Junior College All-America quarterback and member of the SRJC Hall of Fame who prepped at Cardinal Newman.

Last week, college athletes were given permission to make money off their Name, Image and Likeness (NIL). The stampede to shoe deals, appearance money and stand-there-and-let-me-take-your-picture-for-10-bucks was immediate.

Just a brief scan that day revealed this: an Auburn wide receiver is hustling sweet tea, an Arkansas wide receiver is making money selling dog treats and — this brilliant idea is for the times — a Texas running back will send you a personalized video message for $100.

This is not to suggest high school sports is the same cash cow as the billion-dollar college sports industry. In fact, as most high school coaches will admit, they end up losing money during their season. More than one coach has told me that a student-athlete had so little money the coach ended up buying a meal for the kid on a road trip. Not to mention helping buy a kid a helmet or shoes.

Not every kid in Sonoma County, or any other county for that matter, lives high on the hill. Talk to any coach in any sport and they will tell a story that will make your heart ache — a good kid whose family can’t afford participation fees, gear or simply time away from work.

Kids can work to help their families. California state law allows kids 16-17 years old to work up to 4 hours on school days, 8 hours on non-school days, not more than 48 hours a week.

“What people don’t realize,” Keefer said, “is every kid who plays a sport in high school is taking a job. The hours spent after school, during competition, on the weekends, means countless hours. This doesn’t take into account what the student-athlete does in the off-season. Make no mistake, playing sports is working.”

The key word here, of course, is “playing.” How can it be work if a kid is “playing?” The answer: Watch a high school kid at football or basketball practice. This isn’t a 6-year-old sitting on the floor with Legos sucking on a popsicle.

Of course, there are rules. The California Interscholastic Federation has very strict definitions on what it considers amateur status. The ceiling is not high: “From any and all sources, athletic awards totaling $250 in value.” The amount expands to $500 for participation in post-season competition.

“Bylaws set forth the internal policies and procedures of any organization,” Baddeley said. “They are subject to amendment to adapt and change as needed and/or as maybe required by changes in the law.”

In other words, the CIF bylaws can be rewritten if there’s public pressure, common sense and whip-smart attorneys like Baddeley beating down the door. There are amendments to the U.S. Constitution which, at last check, were even more important than what CIF thinks.

So, the question was posed to Jerry Robinson: When he was at Cardinal Newman in the ‘70s, would he take money, be it for signing autographs or having his picture taken in front of a Dairy Queen? Robinson was a high school star, a NCAA Hall of Famer in football and a 13-year player in the NFL.

“As long as I wouldn’t be violating any rules,” Robinson said, “of course I would. Who wouldn’t?”

For those still believing high school sports are innocent and pristine, all about school spirit and pep rallies and sis boom bah, those people also must believe Mickey Mouse is real and the Tooth Fairy is a family friend.

Examples on how hard kids are pushed could fill a Manhattan phone book. Quite possibly no greater example of this is a kid named Bunchie Young. At 11, he received a football scholarship from the University of Illinois. That in itself is not uncommon. Titan Lacaden, for example, accepted a football scholarship from the University of Hawaii. When he was 11. Eleven seems to be the Golden Age of cradle robbers.

What separates Bunchie from the pack is his resume. One website lists Bunchie’s wealth at $200,000. He’s been a guest at a Super Bowl. He ran 12.4 100-yard dash at 10 years old, an age group record. Now 14, Bunchie could break a leg, fall in love with chemistry or a girl, lose interest in football or simply slow down.

Bunchie’s skills could turn to oatmeal, but right now he is hot. So, literally, pay it forward. Bunchie is being showcased as if he was a prized steer, except Bunchie is no steer. He is 5 feet tall. He weighs 80 pounds.

Good luck to Bunchie and his Hall of Fame college and pro career. And good luck to all those parents who dream of their kid in college running circles around defensive backs or small forwards. Soon a kid doesn’t have to be Bunchie to make some side dough.

An athlete could be popular, by his personality as well as the sport. An athlete could be an Instagram destination. He or she could have a commanding social media presence. He or she may be cute, charming, have that “Q” rating all locked up. Remember, this is high school after all. A lot of things, thin in substance, attract attention.

“There could be some serious ethical problems,” Bonfigli said. Follow the money changing hands. Funny how “innocence” and “money” never are included in the same sentence, except this one.

So a kid doesn’t have to be a Jerry Robinson to attract a crowd. He can speak in complete sentences, have a nice jumper and be easy on the eyes. He’s a star in a small town that hasn’t had a lot of stars. All he has to do is say in front of a camera “I like mushrooms on my Tasty Burger” and the Tasty Burger owner gives him $100 every time he’s on television.

Imagine if you’re an McDonald’s All-American basketball player. You’ll be getting more than a free Big Mac and television exposure. You’ll be getting promises and lies and a swelled head. Chester Next Door doesn’t know jack about signing contracts, but he’s Dad’s best friend and what do I say?

Flame-outs and burnt-outs and cop-outs are coming. It won’t be the financial nirvana some expect. Putting a family on the back of a 16-year-old can buckle good and honest intentions. But soon the only amateurs we’ll have left in that 6-year-old with the Legos, unless Nike pays $20 million to secure the rights of Steph Curry’s next child.

As the NCAA learned last week, life very seldom remains in a box, wrapped tight, tamper-proof, secured in finality. Life is what happens when you are making other plans, like going to high school and trying to figure out how to fit in.

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