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The NCAA Lets College Olympians Collect Cash for Gold, Because Amateurism Is a Self-Serving Lie

The NCAA fights tooth and nail to make sure football and men's basketball players don't get paid. It also allows campus Olympic sport athletes to keep medal bonuses. Wait, what?
Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Pity Christian McCaffrey. He plays the wrong sport. Sure, the Stanford University running back is one of college football's biggest returning stars—a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite and a tentpole performer in a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry. Thanks to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's amateurism rules, however, he won't be able to realize more than a fraction of his economic value this fall. No performance bonuses from his athletic department. No gifts from wealthy boosters. Not even a gratis plate of pasta. No, McCaffrey can't accept a penny beyond his athletic scholarship and a small cost-of-attendance stipend, because anything more would destroy his incentive to read a textbook, or trigger a mass-extinction event within women's rowing, or force Big Ten schools to abandon ultra-lucrative major campus sports altogether, or maybe just force association president Mark Emmert to make $1.8 million a year instead of $1.9 million. Or something.


Anyway, my point is that he should have spent more time in a pool.

Just ask Katie Ledecky. Like McCaffrey, the 19-year-old swimmer is at top of her sport, having set two world records en route to winning five Olympic medals—four gold, one silver—at the Rio Games. And like McCaffrey, she'll be competing for Stanford later this year. But unlike her football-playing peer, Ledecky will be able to cash in on her athletic ability without running afoul of the same Javert-ian organization that recently rapped Division III Baruch College for giving too much financial aid to its women's basketball players.

Read More: The NCAA Says Amateurism Is Necessary for Olympics Glory, But Is That Fair?

How is this possible? Simple. For decades, the NCAA and its member schools have been collecting rentier profits, ducking antitrust laws, and squashing the fundamental economic rights of college athletes by invoking the noble, immutable principle of amateurism: thou shalt not be paid to play sports if you're wearing the billboard uniform that Under Armor is paying us to dress you in. For just as long, that same noble, immutable principle has been practically defined as whatever the NCAA says it is.

Once upon a time, athletic scholarships counted as pay. Then they didn't. Laundry money didn't count as pay. Then it did. The association was deeply, existentially opposed to both cost-of-living stipends and complimentary bagel toppings—that is, until bad press and expensive lawsuits convinced NCAA president Mark Emmert and company that, actually, cream cheese should be spread liberally, that gas and pizza money won't break the bank of an industry that can afford to pay football strength coaches $525,000 per year, and that we have always been at war with East Asia. Point is, amateurism is a word fart expelled after wolfing down a nothingburger, a Potemkin concept so empty that even the International Olympic Committee—a group of be-blazered blowhards blithely self-important enough to fancy their quadrennial reality show cum international municipal looting an honest-to-goodness movement—has no use for it.


Which brings us back to the Games. For the past 15 years, the NCAA has allowed incoming and current college athletes to keep any bonuses they receive from the United States Olympic Committee's "Operation Gold" program, which pays cash prizes for medals: $25,00 for gold; $15,000 for silver; and $10,000 for bronze. As USA Today's Steve Berkowitz reports, world-class college athletes in Olympic sports also are permitted to receive cash and benefits worth hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars, everything from monthly stipends to free electronics.

Too bad that's not a gold medal, but enjoy the Rose Bowl gift bag! Photo by Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

In Ledecky's case, this means a $115,000 payday at the Rio Games. She's not alone. Stanford swimmer Simone Manuel captured two golds and two silvers, worth a cool $80,000. University of Georgia swimmer Gunnar Bentz and University of West Virginia rifle shooter Ginny Thrasher each won golds, worth $25,000 apiece. Then there's University of Texas swimmer Joseph Schooling. Competing for Singapore, he beat out Michael Phelps for a 100-meter butterfly gold medal—a victory that netted him a government bonus of one million Singaporean dollars (about $740,000), which the association will allow him to pocket.

Meanwhile, former Georgia running back Todd Gurley once accepted a couple thousand dollars' worth of cash for signing autographs—and was promptly suspended by the NCAA for four games, a punishment that provoked hysterical state lawmakers into criminalizing major American universities acting like drug cartels protecting their turf the egregious, immoral act of giving college athletes money.


If this all seems like an unfair, if not downright capricious, way to treat campus athletes whose sports (cough football cough Dream Team/WNBA-era basketball) aren't represented at the Olympics, that's because it is. And if it all seems like hypocritical bullshit? Welcome to college sports. The association's pay-for-play Olympics carve-outs aren't just head-scratchingly arbitrary; they're a window into just how flimsy amateurism's ethical and logical underpinnings really are.

College athletes must be amateurs, Emmert has claimed, because fans want to believe that said athletes are competing for pride, school, and the love of sport—and not filthy, debased lucre. Fine, but if that's the case, then why is it OK to let them collect the USOC's Cash-For-Gold? Isn't that literally being paid to win, less fight, fight, fight for Ol' State U than straight-up prizefighting? In federal court, the NCAA currently is arguing that athlete compensation should only be permissible if tethered to education. The Rio Games have been many things—August television doldrums relief; an opportunity for Ryan Lochte to make bad decisions in another country; the truest-ever use of Santana and Rob Thomas' "Smooth"—but an advanced calculus class ain't one of them.

In its running battle to keep big-time college football and men's basketball players from keeping a fair portion of the billions of dollars they earn for their schools, the NCAA has decreed that campus athletes can't accept money from boosters or commercial sponsors. That would be wrong. Only guess where the USOC gets its money—the same money it funnels to Olympic medalists. You guessed it: corporate sponsors and private donations (i.e., boosters).


In other words, the NCAA is fine with amateur athletes being paid, so long as that cash is first laundered alongside the American flag.

All that said, it's hard to argue that the association's Olympic pay-for-play exceptions aren't a net positive. After all, some athletes somewhere are at least receiving something closer to their free market value. And that's good—just as it's good when amateur college football players are allowed to keep bowl game swag bags and gifts, because they come from selfless, upstanding college sports executives like John Junker, and not sleazy, exploitative, money-grubbing agents. However, letting Ohio State wrestler Kyle Snyder receive a $1,000 monthly stipend from USA Wrestling doesn't address the root of the problem in campus sports. The real injustice isn't the terms of any particular athlete's deal; rather, it's the terms of the dealing. Pay-for-play—like pay for anything—only happens when you're free to negotiate within a competitive marketplace. That's what the NCAA is fighting against, because that's what all cartels fight against. The debate over amateurism is tangentially about money, and fundamentally about control.

First you get the money, then you get the power. Or maybe it's the other way around. Photo by RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Over a decade ago, Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom—a fine high school student and standout athlete—wanted to play football at the University of Colorado while receiving money from the winter sport sponsors that made his moguls career possible. The NCAA nixed it. More recently, Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber wanted to compete for the University of California, Los Angeles gymnastics team. Instead, she was forced to participate as a student-manager and, later, as a volunteer assistant coach. Why? Wieber accepted sponsorship and endorsement money in high school, and the NCAA declared her ineligible. After her final race in Rio, Ledecky told reporters that she was forsaking commercial opportunities—likely worth millions of dollars—in order to swim for Stanford. "I want to get a really great education and have the opportunities that collegiate swimming brings," she said. "And to do that, I had to remain an amateur." Left unasked: Why should she have to choose? Because the association unilaterally says so?

Political scientist Harold Lasswell once defined politics as who gets what, when, how. To the front of that, add who gets to decide. While actress Natalie Portman attended Harvard, she appeared in the Star Wars prequels. Nobody forced her to work for free, or to settle for a small portion of her actual worth, because receiving market compensation would undercut her education. There is no National Collegiate Acting Association. Ledecky and other college athlete Olympians may be luckier than McCaffrey, and a bit better compensated, but ultimately they remain just as subject to the NCAA's whims, and just as deprived of their basic rights as American citizens. Golden handcuffs still bind.

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