How a spring high school football league would clash with AIA as questions abound

A national spring football league for high school players is set to launch next April with Phoenix among 12 major cities to have a team, according to an Associated Press report.

That could change the face of the Arizona Interscholastic Association if it happens and top players bolt to play for that team.

Brian Woods, former USFL president, told the Associated Press that the Prep Super League will start next year with a six-week season in April and May, which would cut into the AIA spring sports season, which includes baseball and track and field, the two most popular sports among football players.

AP reported that Woods said potential recruits could pay what he referred to as a “player development fee” to participate, which would help fund the league. He also hopes to get revenue from sponsors and ticket sales to see the games.

The league would be for top-end high school players, mainly sophomores and juniors, as an 11-on-11 showcase using NCAA playing rules and operating independently of high school state athletic associations. They would have opportunities to profit off of their name, image and likeness without restrictions, the report says.

"That would make them ineligible for us," AIA Executive Director David Hines said. "That's your choice. But you're ineligible (to play in the AIA).

"And when you get hurt how is that going to help you? There is no college scholarship at that point. And you gave up your high school eligibility."

Most Arizona high school coaches contacted by the Republic didn't want to comment because they don't know enough about it.

But a few did.

"This is crazy," Tempe coach Sean Freeman said. "This can change the high school football game as we know it. But it may level the playing field once again.

"The kids who are 4-to-5-star kids will take their chances of playing for this paid league. Meanwhile, our no-star to 3-star kids will play for their respective high school teams and earn their opportunity to play at the college level. I mean, parents already roll the dice in sending their kids to bigger high schools for what they feel are better opportunities. This NIL league is no different.

"Don't get me wrong, we have some ballers in this state that could succeed in this league. Others may take the risk of playing in this league and not make the team, then what happens to them? Do they sit out of HS ball for a year? Five games? We shall see."

Arizona Interscholastic Association executive director David Hines watches as the Hamilton Huskies take on the Basha Bears at Basha High School football stadium in Chandler on Oct. 20, 2022.

AIA Executive Director David Hines said not only is there an injury risk in the spring tackle football league but they would lose their AIA eligibility status.

"We have an NIL rule," Hines said. "There are some things that kids can do. But what the college does is not high school similar. They can profit off a football player, a basketball player representing the school. You can't represent your school. You can't represent your team. If you want to be a Nike or Under Armour model, go out and make all the money you want. But if you're going to play and now you're going to be tied to these collectives, then your amateur status is done."

Hines has many questions about the league:

Who's uniform are they using? Where is the equipment coming from? Who's insuring the kids? Who is responsible for certifying the helmets? That alone can be a lengthy process for high schools.

Many football players compete in baseball and track and field in the spring, and they use May with their high school football team when college coaches come around to evaluate players.

This league would basically cut right into that with major colleges turning their attention to the spring 11-on-11 league with it running from April 19 through May 24.

The 12 cities the report cited that would have teams are Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, New Jersey, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco and Tampa.

Woods said in the report that he hopes to start hiring coaches in the next few months. He said the league would supplement prospects camps and recruiting showcases and 7-on-7 passing tournaments during that time of year.

Saguaro head coach Zak Hill instructs his team during a spring practice at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale on April 25, 2023.

Saguaro coach Zak Hill, former Arizona State and Boise State offensive coordinator said, "Whether I was a college coach or a high school coach, I would not be for that. I think it's going to cause a lot of problems. The high school coaches are going to be pulled out of a lot that stuff, and they're not going to have a lot of that control. Spring ball as a high program, now you have another league entity. From a safety factor, they're going to have a full season and playoffs, and now they're going to jump into another half season."

Hill added that he never was in favor of NIL for high school kids. "If they're good enough to play college ball, and that NIL stuff appeals to them, then great. You just have to be patient."

"I just think it's messy," Hill said. "It's really, really messy. It's like somebody is just trying to capitalize on these high-level players and trying to create money for themselves."

At first glance of the story, Phoenix Sandra Day O'Connor football coach Brian Cole said his first reaction was, "This is ridiculous."

"These high school kids already have so much going on," Cole said. "In my opinion, a lot of the time, they're over-trained already. And then to add one more thing to a list of things that parents believe they need to do for their kids is ridiculous.

"I'm not a fan of it. I would not want my kids to do it. And I would ask my parents not to do it with their kids, because I think the risk of injury, going out there and throwing pads on and stuff. There's a reason college guys aren't allowed to do that stuff in the offseason. They have one time in spring ball that they can put pads on again. I don't look at it as a positive thing in any way to help get kids recruited, to make them better players. I know with pads on, AIA would have something to say. High school coaches probably wouldn't be able to be a part of it really. You have other people coaching your athletes."

Lakeside Blue Ridge coach and Athletic Director Jeremy Hathcock isn't surprised that club element is hitting high school football, tearing teams apart.

It's been a long-running debate in soccer with top Arizona high school athletes having to choose between playing for their high school team or an elite club soccer program that conflicts with the winter high school season.

The AIA is trying to compete with losing top players to basketball prep academies by going to a 32-team Open Division playoff format for big schools in the last year. The start of the Atlanta-based Overtime Elite, which Valley prep programs Hillcrest Prep and now PHHoenix Prep belong to its boys' basketball league, became a big game-changer with players able to make six figures in high school.

"I don't think kids worry about where they play anymore, as long as it benefits them," said Lakeside Blue Ridge coach and Athletic Director Jeremy Hathcock, who for 13 years led one of the East Valley's top programs at Mesa Desert Ridge. "I think the majority of kids do. But I think the top-end kids who transfer everywhere are looking to build their brand.

"The club coaches come in and sit with the parents and tell them all the benefits to it. The high school coaches can't offer that. Even the solid program with good coaching kids still leave."

To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert or 602-316-8827. Follow him on Twitter@azc_obert

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: How a spring 11-on-11 HS football league could change AIA landscape