Column: Why stop at food? It’s time to reward our athletes

Published 11:48 am Wednesday, September 27, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

When I was on the varsity basketball team, one of my favorite traditions was when my coach would give each of the players and managers a Christmas gift every year. It wasn’t much, but it meant a lot because it was the thought to give us a gift that counted.

Now, imagine if because my teammates and I those $10 movie theater gift cards from our coach, we were banned from competing for our school for at least the rest of the year, if not longer should the athletic association have denied our reinstatement.

If that sounds absolutely crazy, that’s because it is. And if that sounds like that would never happen anywhere in the United States, that would be wrong, because it happened in this very state of Alabama this season.

In case you have avoided the social media firestorm recently, Tuscaloosa County gave two of its football players gift cards to Buffalo Wild Wings to recognize them as the players of the week for its Week 1 win. That doesn’t sound bad, right?

However, this violated the AHSAA’s Amateur Rule stating that “cash awards or gift cards for athletic performances or participation may not be given or received.” Hewitt-Trussville, which shares Class 7A, Region 3 with Tuscaloosa County, caught wind of this and reported it to the AHSAA.

After discovering that those players took the field in Week 2 against Bessemer City, Tuscaloosa County was stripped of its win and both players lost their amateur status and could not apply for reinstatement until next season, even though neither of the players used the gift cards.

In addition, I noticed in a picture which the AHSAA posted that there was a food-related gift card and T-shirt accompanying the award it had given, but when searching for the photo later after this news came out, it had been deleted.

Once the backlash erupted across the state, the AHSAA quickly reinstated both players, and after a Tuesday, Sept. 19 vote, changed the rule to exclude food-related gift cards and any gift cards returned unused from affecting players’ amateur status and restored Tuscaloosa County’s win ahead of its Week 5 game against Oak Mountain.

While I applaud the AHSAA for eventually coming to the right decision and making this specific situation legal going forward, I am disappointed, yet not surprised, that they did not go further.

For starters, they did not exclude all gift cards from affecting amateur status, but only food-related gift cards and any gift cards returned unused. That means that in the scenario I mentioned from my high school experience, we still would have been ruled ineligible if we had played in Alabama and not North Carolina.

Not only would that have meant that we would have had to make our JV team the varsity team for the remainder of the season, we would have likely lost any eligibility for any spring and fall sports that we played.

That thought alone makes my blood boil because it would have sidelined me for my senior cross-country season, which brought me some of my fondest memories from my playing career because of the teammates I mentored and drew closer to as the team’s co-captain.

No child should be forced to abandon the sports that they love simply because somebody wanted to do something nice for a player. It would devastate them mentally and emotionally and also prevent the school from fielding its best team.

But the bigger issue with this ruling is that it simply puts a bandage on a larger, looming problem in high school sports: Name, Image and Likeness, or NIL.

NIL is a very new and highly divisive realm of sports, which is likely why the AHSAA punted the discussion to another date. However, as situations like this show, that debate is quickly approaching, and the sooner that NIL is handled in Alabama, the better.

Instead of punishing those who want to reward athletes and coaches for their hard work on the playing field, why not create a legal avenue for them to do so, especially if schools are already doing so? Why stop at food-related gift cards, and instead allow for our athletes to receive more meaningful rewards and partnerships?

Now, I am not advocating for the current collegiate NIL model. The current model is called “the Wild West” for a reason, as ambiguity and loosely interpreted rules currently allow for gross abuses of NIL, especially when paired with the expanded transfer portal.

For as many horror stories as I have seen with NIL, I personally know many athletes at Samford and my high school who have improved the quality of life for them and their family through the partnerships that they have made with local businesses and the rewards that they have received for their performances.

If schools, athletes, sponsors and the AHSAA sat down at a table and established a set of rules and regulations that would benefit all parties, I guarantee that the result would open a brand-new wave of opportunities for athletes to be rewarded for their performances and could be used as a nationwide model for high school NIL. For once, Alabama would be on the forefront of positive change, instead of being dragged along belatedly and forcefully.

The world of NIL is understandably scary, but the longer that schools and the AHSAA keep their heads stuck in the sand waiting for everything to go back to “the good old days” (whatever those look like), glorifying the antiquated idea of amateurism and pretending that schools like Thompson and Vincent will magically be on the same financial footing, the more that problems like what occurred at Tuscaloosa County will pop up.

The truth is, we have already entered a new era of high school sports. Change will happen whether we want it to or not. But if we as a state put our heads together and find a way to reward athletes and enable schools of all sizes to recognize their talent without creating a free-for-all, we have a massive opportunity to create a better future for high school sports.

We shouldn’t be scared of change, but instead look out for ways where we can make the world better for those coming after us.

So, to the AHSAA: let’s not just limit rewards to food-related gift cards. It’s time for a wider discussion about how we can best reward our athletes, because no kid deserves to lose their chance to play sports over a dozen wings.