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Katie Ledecky, the five-time gold medalist, 14-time world champion and the most marketable swimmer in America not named Michael Phelps, turned professional on Monday.
In doing so she will be allowed to tap into considerable endorsement and sponsorship opportunities. In the build-up to the 2020 Olympics, that could mean millions.
It was done, however, begrudgingly because she can no longer compete for Stanford. The 21-year-old just completed her sophomore season, winning two individual NCAA titles, one relay title and helping the Cardinal to consecutive team championships.
Ledecky plans to remain enrolled at the university and continue to train with her old teammates and coaches at the Avery Aquatics Center. She wants to be a student-athlete. She also can’t pass up the money.
Which begs a simple question: Why did she have to choose?
Ledecky isn’t giving up on college athletics as much as college athletics are giving up on her.
In any sport, let alone one so desperate for the kind of star power that can draw in fans and media, who is served by the NCAA’s white-knuckle grip on the concept of “amateurism”?
Wouldn’t everyone – Ledecky, Stanford and the NCAA – benefit if she could continue to compete in college swimming and profit off her own talent and hard work?
Is it really a bad thing, for example, if Speedo gives Ledecky a sponsorship deal? Or would it be a good thing to have an iconic college athlete and powerhouse female champion featured in television commercials? Wouldn’t that serve as further inspiration to kids who might want to follow Ledecky, that academics are part of the plan?
Then there is why: Why would anyone want to kick Katie Ledecky out of their organization?
She isn’t banned from the Olympics. Since the 1980s, even the International Olympic Committee, a patently corrupt and money-grubbing governing body, has been fine with Ledecky and other athletes controlling their own names and likenesses. Three decades later, it’s only the NCAA still opposing it.
The NCAA has empaneled an “independent” committee, chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to review its rules and procedures in the wake of an embarrassing federal corruption case involving men’s basketball.
Rather than create additional bureaucracy and regulations, it needs to focus on the entire reason for the rules in the first place, a bankrupt idea of amateurism that has morphed into little more than a tax dodge and money grab.
Modern amateurism was born in the 1800s in England. Wealthy elites competed in sports such as sailing, crew and polo and dominated because they had the leisure time to practice and train. The working class may have had better athletes, but to feed their families they worked six and seven days a week in factories or on farms.
Eventually some rich guys began paying their workers to practice a sport and loaded up country-club teams with ringers. The elites, no longer assured victory, created the idea of amateurism and disqualified anyone who was paid to play (meaning the poor who had to work).
Amateurism wasn’t designed out of purity. There was nothing honorable or righteous about it. It was created to protect rich people who didn’t want a fair competition. It was codified cheating.
The IOC followed along until the mid-1980s, when it finally realized it made no sense. The popularity of the Olympics didn’t drop because Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Aly Raisman made a living in their sport and were able to sell their fame to Nike or Subway or whomever. It actually increased because the best of the best returned for additional Olympics. It was also … fair.
These days only the NCAA still calls itself a believer in amateurism, and while much of the debate around it centers on hypothetical football and basketball players, Ledecky serves as a perfect example of the folly. Don’t just focus on someone who might find a pot of NFL or NBA gold waiting for him.
Few college swimmers would command sponsorship or endorsement money. For the ones who do, let them have it. Who gets hurt? That’s the free market. Ledecky has earned every penny. She’s also earned every fan, such as the crowds that come watch her swim in college and the kids that line up for autographs after meets. That’s good for the NCAA. It’s win-win.
For other athletes, it might be smaller, or more local money, but so what? A UConn women’s basketball player or an Iowa State wrestler or a Minnesota-Duluth hockey star might be able to get $500 for showing up at a local car dealership and signing memorabilia, thus bringing in potential customers. Good for them. In some communities, that could mean Division II or Division III even, where a star athlete is a big fish in small ponds.
If a community wants to support an athlete, why worry about some theory of how Alabama football will get all the recruits (when they already get all the recruits)?
Instead of money going to build plush offices for layers of freshly hired athletic department bureaucrats, it reaches the athletes, and their families, who sacrificed so much to achieve what they have.
Rather than clutch their pearls and furrow their brow on how to create some massive set of rules to regulate everything, the NCAA needs to just relax and let capitalism crank.
If nothing else, the NCAA wouldn’t be kicking its best swimmers out of its sport.
College athletics needs to consider this one question as it progresses with any reforms: How terrible is a rule book for student-athletes that can’t find room for an incredible student and an incredible athlete such as Katie Ledecky?
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