Image courtesy Dan Bauer.

It seems every time I turn on a screen in front of me, I see something happening that I thought I would never see. We are in an era where change is championed and expedited at a frequency and pace unlike anything we have seen in the past. We have turned all the stop lights of reason to green seemingly without thought of the future consequences.

As I drank my coffee this morning I was stunned by the headline, “WIAA membership to vote on high school athletes profiting off NIL.” Was today April 1 and this was a good April Fool’s story? Maybe it was a satirical piece from Madison’s own Onion Newspaper. As I wiped the coffee from my monitor and reloaded more caffeine into my system, I discovered it was neither.

While my neurons exploded like a July 4 celebration, my fingers leaped to the keyboard.

If you have been locked in solitary confinement you may not be aware of NIL (Name, Image & Likeness). It has essentially allowed college athletes to be paid for their athletic prowess, much like professional players. As perplexing as it sounds, 31 states have now approved it for their high school athletes.

The introduction of the NIL and the new NCAA transfer portal (the college version of open enrollment) have together transformed college sports. The volume of NCAA athletes switching teams is second only to the number of immigrants switching countries at the Mexican border. It has created an unsustainable chaos that is chasing away Hall of Fame coaches and chipping away at the values of athletics.  

Perseverance, one of the greatest lessons sports provides, has been canceled by the promise of more playing time through the freedom to transfer. The virtues of patience and loyalty have been pushed aside by the instant gratification the portal and open enrollment provides. These are foolish and ill-advised trade-offs that will eventually trivialize the inherent value of amateur athletics. After centuries of standing guard over the character-building worth of athletics, we are painstakingly allowing the individual to be more important than the team.

Make no mistake, these decisions are all about putting the individual above the team.

Rationalizations will be prevalent as we try to convince ourselves that there is no danger here. WIAA Executive Director Stephanie Hauser is on record that the NIL for high school is very different and that recruiting athletes will not be allowed. News flash, recruiting athletes at the high school level is rampant. There was a very similar naivety in 1998, when open enrollment began with 2,464 students changing schools. Last year 73,280 students, a staggering 27 percent, open enrolled to a different school. You cannot convince me that this will not serve to influence those numbers even more.  

Introducing the variable of money for athletes in high school sports is possibly the worst idea I have ever heard. The claim that this will only affect a “very few” athletes is dangerously naive and short-sighted. The fact that this careless perspective is coming from an organization that refuses to address issues like the unchecked growth of co-ops, consolation play at state tournaments and widespread recruiting is baffling to me.

Money is a corrupting variable that will turn this into a Pandora’s box that will further strengthen the haves and diminish the have-nots of high school sports. Anyone that is convinced that the impact of this decision will remain inconsequential, doesn’t understand the addictive power of the will to win. Underestimate the zealousness of parents and alumni at your own peril. The underground network that currently recruits players will be given another carrot to dangle before transferring athletes. 

When I look at the current plethora of spinning plates athletic directors are monitoring, I must wonder why they would want to add another. I struggle to find any rationale to support this proposal. For me, because everybody else is doing it, has never been a good enough reason.

Corralling and managing the ego of some top end players and often their parents is already a challenge worthy of a psychology degree. Player entitlement is a real-life issue for today’s coaches. This recognition and monetary reward have the promise to further complicate team’s locker rooms and saddle everyone with another unhealthy way to compare teammates. It runs counter to every coaches belief that the team comes first. You think putting a ‘C’ on a player’s jersey boosts their ego, wait until you put a check in their hand. It will become a “keep up with Jones” yardstick ripe with the potential for corrupt behavior. And for our legion of prep coaches, who already work long hours for short pay, perhaps one more reason to step away.

With all that said, perhaps the most important reason why NIL is unnecessary is the perception that this is good for the athletes themselves. If you have been around the type of high school athletes that this proposal will impact, you know they are already overwhelmed with the stress of their athletic and academic expectations. They feel a tremendous amount of pressure to hit college testing scores, perfect GPAs, choosing the right college, being a team leader, likely playing multiple sports and answering to multiple coaches and of course just contending with the hormone driven challenges of being a teenager.

Handing these players money will not make any of those issues go away. But it will add another decision to their plate and ramp up the jealousy and perhaps resentment from their teammates. Can we take a deep breath and remember these are teenagers, and not yet adults.

We seem hell-bent as a society in speeding up the clock of childhood. It is an incremental and often unassuming assault. Cellphones are currently stealing away years of innocence, imagination and face-to-face interaction from our kids. High school sports were once about playing with your neighborhood buddies and having pride in your hometown. NIL will just provide more motivation to draw kids away to programs with more promise of playing time and winning.

My old school vision doesn’t see any of that as progress.

There is an undeniable trickledown effect from professional athletics to college to high school to youth. College athletics has created an out-of-control wildfire born from unintended consequences of the portal and NIL. There is no reason, despite well-meaning regulations, to believe this won’t cause a similar catastrophe at the high school level. As the designated stewards of high school athletics, the WIAA’s purpose statement reads, “prevent exploitation by special interest groups of the school program and the individual’s ability.”  

The decision should be easy.

Dan Bauer is a freelance writer, retired teacher and hockey coach. You can contact him at [email protected].

Editor’s note: Wausau Pilot & Review gladly publishes commentary from readers, residents and candidates for local offices. The views of readers and columnists are independent of this newspaper and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wausau Pilot & Review. To submit, email [email protected] or mail to 500 N. Third St., Suite 208-8, Wausau, Wis. 54403.