Twenty years from now, football fans are sure to look back on this summer and wonder why the eighteen-year-old superstar quarterback at Southlake Carroll skipped his senior season of high school football to cash in on his fame.
How could the folks in charge let that happen? You mean amateur athletes earning endorsement money was once against the rules?
By then, we’ll have adjusted to the seismic change currently sweeping through amateur sports, and all the apocalyptic hot takes and endless hand-wringing from fans and media will feel like a waste of time. We still don’t quite understand the impact of the changes brought about by the removal of prohibitions that had long kept college and even high school athletes from pursuing business opportunities based off of their name, image, and likeness (NIL). But we do know that this change is better and more fair than the previous status quo. If the bottom line is that one of the most exploited workforces in the United States gets a share of the wealth it creates, we’ll take our chances with whatever bumps come down the road.
Quinn Ewers, the now former Southlake Carroll quarterback and five-star recruit, would be the first to tell you his is not a story of exploitation. His family does not need the money he’s going to make this fall by marketing himself at Ohio State. They simply don’t believe he should have to pass on the opportunities available to him because the University Interscholastic League (UIL), which oversees Texas high school sports, doesn’t yet permit athletes to sign NIL deals. In opening a door for himself, Ewers could chart a path that helps other Texas athletes—who may need the extra income more than he does—begin supporting their families earlier in their careers than was previously possible.
Ewers is six-foot-three, blond, handsome, and insanely talented. He may be the most heralded Texas high school recruit since Vince Young. He began receiving scholarship feelers in middle school, and his family arranged his academic schedule to position him to graduate early. Now because the UIL has been incapable of adjusting to the new normal, Ewers is off to Ohio State.
This is where we’re at in 2021. The floodgates have opened for college players to pursue NIL deals, and the door for high school players will soon open as well. This is a crossroads for amateurism, recruiting, and, perhaps most of all, the fabric of Friday Night Lights, which are close to sacred in most parts of Texas.
There’s so much we don’t know about the road ahead. Will allowing players to earn sponsorship money create problems? Sure, potentially. Do we see clearly where this trend is headed? No. Are we sure it’s a good thing? One hundred percent.
Nowhere is the importance of high school football more evident than in the Dallas–Fort Worth suburb of Southlake, which invested $15 million in a stadium that seats 12,000. Southlake Carroll has won eight state championships, and after Ewers led the Dragons to the state finals last season, they were one of the favorites to win a ninth in 2021.
To review: since June, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it clear college athletes had won the right to market themselves by selling their NIL rights, it was only a matter of time before a high school athlete attempted to do the same thing. Earlier this year, Curtis and Kristen Ewers approached the UIL and outlined opportunities that could be worth $1 million, according to Yahoo Sports.
Among them, a Dallas health beverage company, Holy Kombucha, that offered the quarterback equity in the business. As Curtis Ewers told Yahoo: “There’s no better business class at Carroll High School that he could take right now. It’s important for all the reasons you can imagine. [Equity] is how you build wealth, not just quick cash.”
Curtis, who works in the oil and gas industry, added: “I don’t think we’re here to fight them or question the UIL, but we hold a different opinion, and we think our opinion is valid. We didn’t ask for this situation, but it’s upon us. It’s our reality. We don’t want Quinn to be a martyr here for everyone who comes behind him. But right now, we are guided by what’s the best for Quinn.”
The UIL told the family last week that, in a “staff opinion,” Quinn could not sign autographs or otherwise sell his NIL rights until he’d played his last high school game. The governing body said it’s guided by the National Federation of State High School Associations, which also prohibits players from seeking such business opportunities. In addition, the UIL said state law prohibits athletes from profiting off their fame while in high school.
Both explanations are legitimate. They’re also both weak.
Had the UIL recognized that the world has changed, and not in a small way, it would have worked aggressively to create and manage opportunities for Texas athletes to take advantage of NIL offers. Instead, the UIL appears to be following the NCAA’s example by doing nothing until the state is forced to act. As a result, Ewers announced on Monday that he’d pass on his senior season, enroll at Ohio State, and could be eligible to play this fall.
Ewers said this isn’t the outcome he wanted. Look at all the fun he’s going to miss out on. What’s better than being the best player on the best team in Texas? That’s a lifetime of memories.
Indeed, Ewers tweeted this very thing Monday: “It’s unfortunate I’ve found myself in this situation, as my preference would have been to complete my senior season at Southlake Carroll along with the teammates and friends I’ve taken the field alongside for the past three years …”
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes responded: “Good luck big dawg! Look forward to seeing you at the next level.”
Don’t worry about Ewers’s decision emboldening others to follow the same path. It certainly will. Danny Russell, football coach at Garland High School, told the Dallas Morning News that one of his best players had talked to him about possibly sitting out his senior year to cash in. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who has yet to start a college game, is said to have deals worth close to $1 million.
At some point, probably by next summer, the UIL will confront this new reality. The government group insists that legislative action will be required, and if that’s true, so be it. Don’t sweat that part—Texas legislators will pass a bill if they determine that their local high school programs need it to go through. In May, Texas became just the sixth state in the nation to allow college athletes to pursue NIL opportunities.
Remember when that was a no-chance-in-hell issue to some (most notably the NCAA)?
You’re probably wondering where all of this is headed. Right now, we don’t even know where it’ll begin, since every school and every state is making it up as they go along. Both Texas A&M and Texas have launched programs to assist athletes in marketing, branding, and managing finances. For coaches, the challenge will be maintaining locker room cohesiveness when plenty of athletes make lots of money and plenty others make close to nothing.
Let’s hope that a decade from now, Ewers doesn’t look back and regret passing on his senior season for paid Instagram posts and an assortment of endorsements. But he also doesn’t really have any alternative. Given the nature of his sport, a star football player like him simply shouldn’t pass up any chance for increased financial security. And this season—even though Ohio State wasn’t expecting Ewers this early—he could end up starting for the Buckeyes.
In this way, his talent and hard work have paid off sooner than he could have dreamed. Although he’s giving up the kind of senior year glory that high school kids grow up to cherish for the rest of their lives, he’s giving it up to play football for Ohio State. That’s not a fallback option.
And if Ewers ends up opening doors for every Texas high school kid who comes after him, he’ll have made history before ever taking a snap at the college level. How’s that for legacy?