While politicians fight with NCAA over pay-for-play, athletes like Regan Smith stuck leaving money on table

In a matter of 123.35 seconds on a steamy July night in South Korea, the Smith family’s lives changed.

In the pool below, 17-year-old Regan Smith shattered the world record in the 200-meter backstroke, her jaw dropping as she looked at the scoreboard and realized she had blown away the mark set by the great Missy Franklin at the 2012 London Olympics. In the stands above, father Paul and mother Kristi were overwhelmed and elated and proud, slightly amazed by what Regan had just done. The kid from Lakeville, Minnesota, had been an extraordinary swimmer for years — good enough to be the youngest member of the United States team for this World Championship meet — but this was a new level of excellence.

Freshly crowned as the fastest female backstroker in history, the machinery of sudden fame lurched into motion and scooped up Regan’s parents. Within minutes of setting the record, USA Swimming officials made their way to them in the stands for a brief consultation. They exchanged contact information, scheduled a meeting, started laying plans for this real-time transformation from aquatic prodigy to 2020 Olympic gold-medal favorite.

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Two nights later, Smith would also set the world record in the 100 backstroke while leading off what would be a world-record performance by the American 400 medley relay. Two swims, three world records, welcome to international swimming stardom. She will be one of the fresh faces seen often in the buildup to Tokyo next summer.

Back home in America after that burst of brilliance, here came the inducement offers and encouragement to turn professional. Here came the hard sell.

“There was a lot of attention, a lot of people coming at us,” Paul Smith said. “We got flooded. The conventional wisdom was, ‘You are an idiot if you don’t go pro. You’re looking at several million dollars.’”

Conventional wisdom met an established conflict: Regan Smith had already committed to swim at Stanford, her dream school, after graduating from high school in 2020. She was born in the Bay Area, where Paul had worked in the tech industry, and valued both the elite education and elite swim program at the school. But then the discussion of potential life-altering money entered the picture, presenting the dilemma.

She could turn pro, or she could swim collegiately. She couldn’t do both.

Until, perhaps, now.

The freshly implemented California Senate Bill 206, which will allow college athletes in that state to profit off their name, image and likeness, could change Regan’s future. It becomes actionable on Jan. 1, 2023 — though at the rate which other states are looking to fast-track similar legislation, California could wind up being pre-empted on its own pioneering legislation.

Regan Smith of the U.S. reacts after winning the women's 200m backstroke final at the 18th FINA world swimming championships in South Korea in July. (Reuters)
Regan Smith of the U.S. reacts after winning the women's 200m backstroke final at the 18th FINA world swimming championships in South Korea in July. (Reuters)

It is a game-changing law that should accelerate the NCAA’s acceptance of something other than staunch amateurism as its guiding principle. It could allow the Regan Smiths of the world — the best teenage athletes who will be entering college in the coming years — to both be paid for their prowess and remain college athletes.

The vast majority of the focus — and the available endorsement money — created by the “Fair Pay To Play Act” will be centered on football and men’s basketball. That’s understood. But there are elite athletes in non-revenue sports who will also be marketable, to the great benefit of the NCAA as a whole and the American Olympic movement.

The power brokers in college sports are busy propagating scare tactics about the damage that will be done by this legislation. The Pac-12 conference issued a statement that included a start prediction that the bill “will likely reduce resources and opportunities for student-athletes in Olympic sports and have a negative disparate impact on female student-athletes.”

As colleague Dan Wetzel pointed out in a column earlier this week, any reduction in female athletic opportunities would only prove that administrators care less about female athletics than male athletics. They set the priorities and the budgets. Perhaps they should look at their own bloated staffs as a potential place to cut if NIL legalization impacts the bottom line. (Important to note — and repeat, over and over — that money going to athletes for endorsements would not come directly from the colleges themselves.)

Fact is, NCAA amateurism rules have long had a negative impact on Olympic sports. They sent household names like Katie Ledecky and Franklin out of college early and into the pro ranks. Other teen stars, like Michael Phelps and gymnast Simone Biles, both bypassed college competition because their earning potential during those years would have been wasted. Soccer players Lindsey Horan and Mallory Pugh of the World Cup-winning U.S. women’s national team skipped college to play professionally overseas.

Think of the publicity they could have generated for attention-starved non-revenue sports. You don’t think more people would have bought tickets or tuned into broadcasts to see established Olympic megastars like Phelps swim for Michigan or Biles bounce for UCLA? Phelps trained with the college team in Ann Arbor but never competed for the Wolverines. Biles committed to the Bruins but never wore a powder-blue leotard.

As for Regan Smith and her dilemma: The family did its homework on her earning potential. Fact is, the “several million dollars” being discussed probably wouldn’t materialize pre-Tokyo. Most of the big-dollar, mainstream marketing Olympic deals — companies like Toyota and Visa and MinuteMaid — were locked up before Smith blew up.

The swimsuit industry was still ready to throw at least six figures Smith’s way, with the potential for other side deals. In swimming terms, she became an A-List client to pursue. But as Paul Smith put it, “It’s not Peyton Manning we’re talking about. We understand that.”

In the end, the Smiths say they will stay the amateur course for now. The Ledecky Plan looks like a viable alternative: two years of collegiate swimming at Stanford, then turn pro two years ahead of the 2024 Olympics while staying in training with Cardinal coach Greg Meehan in Palo Alto.

If NCAA rules (or California law) change prior to Smith turning pro, they will weigh endorsement opportunities warily. Anything that takes away from a focus on swimming is not something the family is eager to embrace.

What they will continue to fight for, however, is prize money that has been withheld from Regan by NCAA rules. A lot of it. She earned about $140,000 from her World Championship performances — including $67,500 in world-record bonuses — and only got to keep about $41,000. The other $100,000 is locked up on the wrong side of the NCAA blockade.

“What she did in Korea has absolutely nothing to do with college swimming,” said Paul Smith, who currently is the program director for Regan’s club team, Riptide Aquatics in Apple Valley. “I bemoan nothing, but intellectually, I don’t understand not being able to accept a world-record bonus. It leaves kind of a bitter taste.”

In the meantime, Regan Smith will continue training toward Tokyo and her family will continue turning down prize money and avoiding endorsements, per NCAA bylaws. They will turn down lucrative offers for private swim lessons from people in the Minneapolis area. They will painstakingly track all her meet expenses and seek reimbursement for those from USA Swimming — a plane flight here, a meal there — while waiting for a day when the best backstroker in the history of the planet can be fully rewarded financially for her greatness.

Rules are rules, until they aren’t. A better day for college athletes is on the way — and not just football and men’s basketball players. The best in the Olympic sports should profit as well.

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