Ledecky’s Decision to Turn Pro Highlights the Risks of NCAA Amateurism Rules

(Photo: Rob Schumacher, USA TODAY Sports)

Remember when swimmer Katie Ledecky won the 800-meter freestyle at the 2016 Olympic Games?  She finished more than eleven seconds ahead of her closest competitor—a gap that show-cased the then nineteen-year-old’s dominance in the pool and cemented her status as an Olympic superstar. When the games ended, Ledecky packed up her five medals (four gold, one silver) and headed home to fame and fortune—well, scratch the fortune part.

Instead of raking in millions and seeing her face on every Speedo billboard, Ledecky opted to forgo the almost certain barrage of endorsements and go to college, where, under NCAA rules, she could not collect money from her continued athletic success—forced instead to remain a pure amateur, untouched by the spoils of money and corporate greed.

Two years later, things are changing.  On March 26, Ledecky chose to stop swimming competitively for Stanford and turn pro. She plans to continue classes and keep training with her Cardinal teammates, but her reign of dominance at the collegiate level will end with back-to-back team championships and eight NCAA titles.

According to the Washington Post, Ledecky claims turning pro will allow her to focus full-time on the upcoming World Championships and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo—but, it’s hard not to wonder if the NCAA’s iron-clad amateurism standards factored into her decision.

Ledecky is nearing an earnings peak; in the lead-up to the next Olympics, brands will be clamoring for a proven, successful Olympian to represent them in national campaigns.  Repeat Olympic glory is uncertain—just ask swimmer Missy Franklin who captured four Gold Medals in 2012, but only reached the podium once in 2016 (for swimming in a preliminary heat for the team relay).  To see Ledecky turn down the opportunity to capitalize financially on a lifetime of hard work for a second time seems crazy.  But what is even crazier is the fact she had to make a choice.

Ledecky’s decision strikes at an important corollary to the current debate over paying college athletes: the ability for an athlete to profit off their own name, image and likeness. Under NCAA bylaw, student-athletes are ineligible to compete if they accept pay or permit the use of their “name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the same or use of a commercial product or service of any kind” or “endorse[s] a commercial product or service through the individual’s use of such product or service.”  While the student-athlete cannot profit from their own image, the NCAA can.  Up until 2014, the NCAA actually made athletes sign a yearly release granting the NCAA and associated third parties (like a school or conference) permission to use the athlete’s name and image to promote NCAA events.  In Ledecky’s case, this use feels even more exploitive since she made a name for herself outside of college sports.

The court has shown openness to paying student-athletes for use of their image and likeness.  When former UCLA basketball standout Ed O’Bannon filed suit against the NCAA for using his likeness in a video game, California District Court Judge Claudia Wilken suggested schools put as much as $5,000-per-year into a trust for athletes to compensate for image and likeness use.  Judge Wilken’s decision was ultimately overturned by the Ninth Circuit; but the fact remains that compensation for image and likeness is an issue that needs to be considered in concert with paying student-athletes. It may even be a way to skirt around the pay-to-play debate.  Easing restrictions on image and likeness is not as polarizing as paying student-athletes to play and it avoids the fears churned up by that argument—notably that schools paying athletes would bankrupt athletic departments and lead to schools cutting non-revenue generating teams.

It is almost impossible to know which Olympic athlete will inspire the world during the next Games; but it is almost certain that athlete will come from a non-revenue generating sport like swimming, track-and-field, or fencing.  The success of a college athlete on the Olympic stage is an invaluable marketing tool for the NCAA and programs that need that spotlight.  The NCAA’s refusal to let athletes capitalize on their sporting profile while competing in college athletics is forcing athletes to make a choice—an NCAA career or capitalizing on the rare moment of recognition for a lifetime of hard work.

Ledecky’s decision to stop swimming competitively for Stanford costs the NCAA. The excitement and attention that could have been generated by following her collegiate career in the lead-up to the 2020 games will never materialize.  That’s bad for the NCAA, Stanford, and competitive swimming. Ledecky, like many young athletes, is looking ahead, toward her future.  The NCAA however, is stuck in the past, clinging to archaic amateurism rules that could be—and likely are—a turn-off for future stars.

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