Monday, September 12, 2016

NCAA Amateurism and the Olympic Exception

The manual for the NCAA which explains what it means to be an "amateur" athlete is starting to look like a block of Swiss cheese. One important exception (of many) to its amateurism rules prohibiting payment to athletes is for Operation Gold of the US Olympic Committee (The exception is found in NCAA Bylaws and

The USOC, like other national governing bodies, gives cash prizes to Olympic athletes for performance. The Gold Medal bonuses are shown above (via Yahoo via Fox Sports Australia), but there are also bonuses for Silver and Bronze.

USA Today explains what these bonuses mean for US swimmers in NCAA programs:
U.S. swimming star Katie Ledecky’s performance at the Rio Olympics netted her a total of $355,000 in medal awards that she will be able to keep while remaining eligible to compete for Stanford, USA TODAY Sports has learned.

Three other incoming or current college swimmers also ended up with six-figure amounts: California’s Ryan Murphy ($234,375) and Stanford’s Simone Manuel (nearly $200,000) and Indiana’s Lilly King ($134,375).
Overall, 17 US swimmers enrolled in NCAA programs took home about $1.5 million in prize money.

Within the USOC Operation Gold program, individual national sport governing bodies are free to augment the USOC awards. So, "Wrestler Kyle Snyder, now a junior at Ohio State, won a gold medal in Rio that gave him $250,000 -- $25,000 from the USOC, the remainder from USA Wrestling’s Living The Dream Medal Fund." No one, to my knowledge, has summarized the total prize money won by US and international NCAA athletes, but it is easily into the millions of dollars.

The NCAA allowed exceptions only for US athletes up to 2015, when it was expanded to allow the same exception for international athletes in NCAA programs. Singapore’s Joseph Schooling, who swims for the University of Texas, was no doubt pretty happy about that new rule after winning Gold in Rio and taking home about $750,000.

Operation Gold is in place not just during Olympic years, but every year. Here is a table for cash awards:
As the fine print says, national governing bodies for each sport can augment the awards with additional funds.

Last week NCAA president Mark Emmert said that the NCAA was going to take a close look at such prizes, based on Schooling's award. But the NCAA is in a tough spot, both legally and and from a PR perspective. Is Ledecky's haul OK but not Schooling's? Would the NCAA really want to discourage Olympic athletes from attending NCAA programs? Do they want to risk looking mean-spirited or just plain ridiculous?

When you take a closer look at the NCAA rules, you'll find that there are actually a bevy of awards available to athletes, and not just Olympic athletes, but big-time college football and basketball players as well.

As Judge Claudia Wilken explains of the NCAA in the context of the O'Bannon case (over rights to athlete name, image and likeness): "The association's current rules demonstrate that, even today, the NCAA does not necessarily adhere to a single definition of amateurism." I'd venture that the facade of amateurism will soon go the way that it did in the Olympics - into history.


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