How the NCAA's president could force Olympic medalists to abandon college athletics

There is a reason the NCAA built a public-speaking fence around Mark Emmert a couple of years ago, trying to keep him from wandering off into areas where he could make the organization look even worse than it often does.

They limited the NCAA president’s media exposure, turned his Final Four news conference into a Q&A with university presidents, did everything but tackle him if he came near a microphone. Why? Because he routinely talked himself and the association into awkward stances and controversial situations.

The fewer off-the-cuff interviews he did, the fewer times he could say something that required repairing or explaining by the NCAA’s public-relations staff. But Emmert clearly slipped off the reservation Thursday at The Aspen Institute, a Washington think tank.

The result: Emmert has basically taken a stand against Olympians who are good enough at their sports to win medals and be compensated for it.

Because who shouldn’t be against those people?

The specific issue is revenue for medalists from their national Olympic committees and/or the national governing bodies of their sports. This became a talking point during the Rio Games when people figured out that college athletes were getting some pretty significant revenue for winning medals, and it’s perfectly legal under current NCAA rules.

NCAA president Mark Emmert wants to assess the money college athletes make for winning Olympic medals. (Getty)
NCAA president Mark Emmert wants to assess the money college athletes make for winning Olympic medals. (Getty)

American athletes, for example, earn $25,000 from the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Operation Gold initiative for a gold medal, $15,000 for a silver and $10,000 for a bronze. That can add up. Katie Ledecky is taking $115,000 pre-tax with her to Stanford this month.

It’s the adding up that has turned Emmert queasy. That, and the amount of revenue available to NCAA athletes from other countries.

Joe Schooling is a standout swimmer at Texas and the pride of Singapore, where he was born in 1995. He was arguably the nation’s biggest athletic hero even before he got to Rio. Then he became an instant legend by beating Michael Phelps and winning the 100-meter butterfly gold medal.

Singapore’s Olympic committee rewarded him with $740,000. Emmert presumably fainted in his well-appointed NCAA office as soon as he heard. He termed that dollar figure “a complexity.”

“To be perfectly honest, it’s causing everybody to go, ‘Oh, well, that’s not really what we were thinking about,’ ” Emmert said at The Aspen Institute. “So, I don’t know where the members will go on that. I mean, that’s a little different than 15 grand for the silver medal for swimming for the U.S. of A. So, I think that’s going to stimulate a very interesting conversation.”

In other words, we might have to outlaw this because we can’t have college athletes getting rich even for performances that have nothing to do with being college athletes. Make a little money? OK. Make a lot of money? The republic may fall.

Of note: Emmert makes about $2 million per year as head of the NCAA. The only people who should be allowed to make a lot of money in college athletes are the administrators and coaches.

If I were Schooling, and I were the biggest thing to hit Singapore since the British East India Company, I would have turned pro by now and kissed college swimming goodbye. I’d be endorsing electronics and clothing lines and banks in one of the world’s most affluent countries.

But Schooling apparently is willing to take his $740,000 and remain a Longhorn. Mark Emmert seems willing to discuss whether such a terrible thing should be allowed.

Especially for a (lowered voice) foreigner. Who was not competing for the “U.S. of A.”

Joseph Schooling (right) received $740,000 from Singapore for beating Michael Phelps. (Reuters)
Joseph Schooling (right) received $740,000 from Singapore for beating Michael Phelps. (Reuters)

NCAA rules already make college sports participation unlikely for the most precocious of athletes, most of whom are females. Many gymnasts, for example, have reached their peaks before finishing high school and are able to make money that ends their amateur status and NCAA eligibility. You’ve never seen 19-year-old Simone Biles in a college leotard, and you never will.

But if Emmert’s comments Thursday are a precursor, you may now see the NCAA moving to push out some of the best and brightest of its Olympic sports. Katie Ledecky? Too good, too rich to be a college athlete. Who would want a great student and classy woman who happens to be the best swimmer on the planet raising mainstream interest in the 2017 NCAA championships? Who wants the guy who beat Michael Phelps in his last individual race?

Obviously, there is a glaring disparity between the earning power of a college football and basketball player vs. the earning power of an Olympic medalist who happens to be a collegian. But here’s the thing: the best of the football and basketball players have a lucrative market awaiting them after college, while the Olympic athletes do not.

There is no NFL of swimming, no NBA of wrestling. Pro careers exist, but few of them are truly lucrative. Thus, going to college tends not to be a forced detour on the way to getting rich at another level; it’s a preferred and established road map to becoming a national teamer, an Olympian and perhaps even an Olympic medalist.

For those amazingly talented, driven and fortunate few, the money that comes along with a medal is significant compensation. Hopefully Mark Emmert and the other hypocritical suits that run the NCAA don’t force Olympic medalists to give up being college athletes on account of it.

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