Five time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky has passed up the opportunity to become a professional swimmer in order to maintain her amateur status and swim for Stanford University. She was faced with the choice to either cash in on endorsement deals by turning pro or compete collegiately in an elite swimming program while working towards a degree. Estimates are that she could have earned as much as five million dollars annually had she decided against swimming in college. The Olympic champion was still able to collect the prize money given to the game’s medalists.
The NCAA’s prevention of its athletes being able to profit off of their talent is what leads to the choice that Ledecky (and others) have to make. Competing collegiately means the athlete must forgo any endorsement deals that may be offered. In order maintain their claim of amateurism, the NCAA strictly enforces the lack of payment to its athletes despite collecting extraordinary amounts of money from their skill sets. Thus, the money one could get from leaving college and becoming a professional is often too enticing to pass up.
Refusing to compensate athletes through possible endorsements appears to be a detrimental policy for the NCAA. Not only does staying in college to compete in a sport appear to be a risky financial decision, but the American public seems to be embracing the idea of allowing college athletes to receive endorsement money. A 2014 Reason-Rupe poll found that 64% of those surveyed thought that student-athletes should receive money if a college or company sells gear containing their likeness or jersey number. Who or what is ultimately harmed if Ledecky were to be paid by those willing to compensate her for her likeness? Well, other than the NCAA’s increasingly unpopular definition of amateurism of course.
One may wonder why Ledecky left so much money on the table in order to commence a college swimming career that isn’t going to pay her. It may seem like a big risk considering the possibility of injury that is always lurking for all athletes. But looking into Ledecky’s family, it’s clear that the lifestyle she comes from minimizes those risks and makes competing as an amateur much more appealing. Her father, David, is a Washington D.C area attorney who has a B.A. from Harvard and went to law school at Yale. Her uncle, Jon, is one of the owners of the New York Islanders hockey team. For obvious reasons, someone coming from this kind of economic status is better equipped to embrace a choice that emphasizes collegiate amateurism rather than a professional pay day.
Since collegiate swimming receives very little fanfare throughout the country, Ledecky’s decision in this matter was not met with many strong opinions either celebrating or condemning her for it. The game that American sports fans complain about most when it comes to its athletes selecting a professional career over spending time in playing as an amateur is clearly college basketball. There seems to be a collective lamenting throughout the nation after the end of every March Madness when a huge portion of the college basketball elite opt for the NBA over another year at their university. However, it isn’t hard to see why this is the case. College basketball players who are able to become high picks in the NBA draft often come from disadvantaged, urban areas of the country. The payout they would receive from becoming a professional is usually vastly more money than either they or anyone in their family has ever seen before or will ever see again. So can we really expect poor, inner city youths faced with the possibility of million dollar salaries and endorsement deals to make the same economic decision as someone as financially privileged as Ledecky?
All of this makes an excellent case for why college athletes should be able to get paid by their schools and enter into endorsement deals. If the lure of a pro salary is too enticing, then allowing amateurs to collect some money for their talent is a good way to lessen that enticement so that more will choose to return to college. Sadly, the NCAA shows very few signs of adopting this model despite the positives that would likely occur. As of right now, in order to minimize the risk of delaying a professional salary, you need Ledecky-level family money.