Meet the company helping Alabama, Tennessee high school football coaches navigate NIL future

Jacob Shames
Nashville Tennessean

Tim Prukop understands the concerns. More than that, he sympathizes with them.

“Generally, high school coaches think (NIL) is a really bad thing,” Prukop said. “I think that’s consistent across the board, and I don’t disagree.

"I think if what happened in the NCAA happened at the high school level, it would ruin high school sports.”

On the surface, it’s an interesting statement coming from the chief commercial officer and co-founder of Eccker Sports, a sports information company founded in August 2021 to provide name, image and likeness education. But assuming Eccker Sports is in favor of NIL at the high school level would be  misreading what the company hopes to offer.

In Prukop’s view, there’s a way to avoid the doomsday scenario.

“Education, a set of rules that everybody agrees to, and monitoring,” Prukop told the USA Today Network. “If we do those three things, then all the benefits of NIL will become available to everybody.”

The first part is where Eccker Sports comes in. The company has partnered with the Alabama Football Coaches Association and Tennessee Football Coaches Association — whose states don’t currently allow high school athletes to financially profit from their name, image or likeness — in order to educate principals, athletic directors and coaches on the complexities of NIL. 

As the Louisiana High School Athletic Association approved NIL for high school athletes in April, it enlisted Eccker Sports to provide NIL certification courses that are mandatory for administrators and also available to coaches, athletes and families.

"We are taking a whiteboard approach to this with Eccker Sports so that as new rules are established and things change from state to state, our members will always have the most current information available to properly guide our kids and their families,” LHSAA executive director Eddie Bonine said in a statement. “We want everyone to be prepared because even if you don’t have someone right now facing these challenges, you never know when you might, and we want everyone prepared when that time comes.”

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Along with courses, Eccker Sports — which pays the ALFCA and TNFCA a small sponsorship fee — offers a resource hub on its website, which lists various policies for colleges, state laws and news articles about NIL. The website includes a tracker of states that allow NIL for high school athletes, which states are considering it, and guidebooks to help coaches inform their players and families about NIL.

“We surely hope (NIL) never becomes legal (in Alabama),” said Jack Wood, the ALFCA’s executive director. “But in the sense that there’s so many questions to ask and so little knowledge, we just want to be a source that can help for schools.”

Matthew Bates, the president of the TNFCA and an assistant football at Hardin Valley Academy, struck a more receptive tone. But he described most coaches in Tennessee as “scared,” and thinks that if his organization took a straw poll, the majority would be against NIL.

“We’re blessed that it’s not hit Tennessee yet,” Bates said. “ … It’s growing. So you’ve got to talk about it and get ahead of it. At the end of the day, we hope that parents come talk to us about what we think is going to happen. We want to be ready to answer those questions.”

For now, Bates plans to devote much of his summer to researching NIL and its effects at the college and high school level. He’s heard players discussing college athletes signing deals, but hasn’t been asked questions directly.

“The average high school coach in Alabama, I don’t think it’s something they’re thinking about daily at this point in time,” Wood said. “Where’s it going to be six months from now? … We want to be able to help get stuff out to coaches that educates them in these matters however they want to.”

East High senior Damani Barley, a star high school basketball in greater Rochester, signs a compensation deal for use of his name, image and likeness by a pizza shop.

Whether it be in six months or six years, Prukop’s aim is to have a plan in place. 

For players, that means understanding the NIL procedures of the universities recruiting them, the terms of their contracts and ensuring that their companies they strike deals with are representative of their “brand.”

While Prukop wants to ensure athletes can build their brands without fear of exploitation, coaches and administrators have other concerns. What happens to the bonds built among teammates when money is thrown into the equation? What happens if a neighboring state approves NIL and a player wants to transfer to take advantage?

“You don’t have a national governing body like the NCAA that enforces rules,” Prukop said. “Some kid leaves Texas to go to Louisiana, the UIL doesn’t have to get with the LHSAA and figure out what’s going on. There’s nothing that makes these guys work together.”

Any application of NIL at the high school level, in Prukop’s view, has to work within existing bylaws — in states such as Alabama, for example, eligibility for transfers hinges on whether the player is making a “legitimate move.” Moves made purely for NIL purposes might then result in a mandatory period of ineligibility.

In Louisiana, Eccker is developing a clearinghouse that would give the LHSAA oversight for any NIL deal signed in the state.

Those final two parts of Eccker Sports’ three-pronged approach — regulation and monitoring — are already applicable in Louisiana. For now, Eccker’s activities in Alabama and Tennessee are limited to education, but it may only be a matter of time before their operation grows.

“The coaches that want to put their head in the sand and pretend like this is going away,” Prukop said, “are going to have their head in the sand for a long time.”

Jacob Shames covers high school sports for the Montgomery Advertiser and the USA Today Network. Shames can be reached by email at jshames@gannett.com, by phone at 334-201-9117 and on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.