The Summer Olympics are over. The post-Olympic period offers a tradition unlike any other: multiple-time American Olympic gold medalists forced to choose between millions of dollars in endorsements and participation in college athletics.
Michael Phelps opted to attend Michigan, but take the money after the 2004 Olympics. Missy Franklin turned down endorsements to swim at Cal Berkeley, after winning four goals in 2012. This cycle, it is Katie Ledecky. She has five gold medals. She plans to swim for Stanford, which could cost her $15-$20 million in endorsement income.
Ledecky’s decision is not silly. It’s silly she has to make this decision.
The NCAA uses the term “student-athlete.” Yes, it’s a nonsense term, intended to differentiate said athlete from an employee who would be entitled to income, to collective bargaining, and to coverage in the event of tragic injury. But, we can take this term at face value.
Athletes are students, participating in an extracurricular activity. They can receive no benefits (outside the NCAA sanctioned ones) not offered to the normal student. So, why don’t they have the same rights to outside income?
Students are permitted to earn money. Many work jobs. Many have parents covering expenses. Some have trust funds. Some have their own businesses.
This outside income has no impact on their eligibility for extracurricular activities outside sports. Harvard compliance was not going to step in and prevent Natalie Portman from appearing in a University theater production because she was acting in Star Wars. Why should sports be different?
One could argue in football and basketball the student-athlete is using the school’s brand to build his/her own profile and to acquire skills to further a potential professional career. It’s not a great argument, for why the school should then control 100 percent of that likeness revenue. But, it’s an argument.
That doesn’t apply for Katie Ledecky. NCAA swimming is not NCAA football. Ledecky earned her Olympic medals before stepping foot on Stanford’s campus. Income from her likeness would have nothing to do with Stanford. It is Stanford and Stanford’s swimming program deriving the benefit of having someone of her stature and celebrity on campus.
The NCAA rule against outside income for students athletes is nonsense. Katie Ledecky would be the perfect athlete to challenge it.
Ledecky, unlike a star football player like Leonard Fournette who would have to sit out the year, would suffer zero professional stigma or censure by mounting a legal challenge. She would still be able to train as normal and to compete in the competitions that actually matter for a swimmer of her stature and stay right on track for 2020.
Moreover, Ledecky would be arguing just for the right to earn outside revenue, not upturn the entire NCAA amateurism model. She would probably win and, eventually, get to compete for Stanford.
Besides the terrible PR Ledecky’s case would present for the NCAA, the Olympic model allowing endorsement revenue would be a smart settlement for the NCAA to make. It costs schools little. It eliminates headaches, bad headlines, and enforcement costs.
Deshaun Watson could earn whatever the market would bear from Nike, Subway, EA Sports, and South Carolina car dealerships. Coupled with some provision for longterm healthcare, that would undercut the case for coming after the TV revenue, the font that feeds the entire athletic administration industrial complex.
The net impact for the NCAA would be more athletes eligible, more athletes staying for their senior years, and more Olympians propping up non-revenue sports. Better competition. Better ratings. Income from video games that could happen again.
We suspect Katie Ledecky won’t take the money, enroll at Stanford, and file suit to be able to swim. But, she would be the ideal athlete to do it.