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Why Olympic Prize Money Is a Chance for the N.C.A.A. to Right a Wrong

SportWhy Olympic Prize Money Is a Chance for the N.C.A.A. to Right a Wrong

The latest dent in the NCAA’s bedrock principle of amateurism came from an unlikely place: Monaco.

Track and field gold medalists will become the first athletes to earn international prize money at the Olympics, the sport’s international governing body said Wednesday. Each gold medalist will receive $50,000 for individual wins. World Athletics, which governs track and field from its headquarters in Monaco, also pledged to award prize money to silver and bronze medalists at the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028.

“It is important we start somewhere and make sure some of the revenues generated by our athletes at the Olympic Games are directly returned to those who make the Games the global spectacle that it is,” World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said in a statement.

What is not yet clear is if current college athletes are allowed to receive that prize money. In what feels like a relic of college sports’ antiquated past, the NCAA currently bars athletes from accepting prize money in events such as the U.S. Open in tennis or golf. The NCAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the World Athletics announcement.

While the NCAA does allow money to be paid to Olympic athletes in college under its Operation Gold program, that rule clearly states that the money must come from the sport’s governing body for the athlete’s sport in his or her home country. They can accept money paid by their national governing body as well as the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee; the USOPC currently awards $37,500 for each gold medalist, $22,500 for each silver medalist and $15,000 for each bronze medalist.

In that one very specific environment, college athletes can be paid to play their sport — and they can maintain their NCAA eligibility. In essentially any other environment, they can’t.

It’s well past the time for the NCAA to allow its athletes to accept their hard-earned prize money, regardless of which governing body hands it out. That should include World Athletics, which is paying its prize money from the revenue it receives from the International Olympic Committee. That should also include individual professional sport organizations such as the USTA or USGA, which would then allow collegiate tennis players and golfers to earn prize money while maintaining collegiate eligibility.

Such circumstances are the heart of a lawsuit filed by University of North Carolina tennis player Reese Brantmeier, who is arguing that she and other athletes like her deserve to keep the prize money they earn by participating in and winning tournaments. Right now, they can only keep enough to cover their expenses.

Meanwhile … these athletes see Caitlin Clark appearing in national television commercials and quarterbacks hawking headphones through lucrative name, image and likeness (NIL) deals while maintaining their NCAA eligibility.

“I can’t think of another situation where an organization can have a draconian quid pro quo where you are prohibited from accepting money you earned with your own sweat,” UNC associate head tennis coach Tyler Thomson told The Athletic last month when Brantmeier filed her lawsuit. “I just think it’s really wrong, and especially in the age of NIL.”

That point is even more poignant in an age of NIL marked by pseudo-salaries paid by booster-backed collectives. Those NIL deals effectively allow donors to pay athletes to play at a specific school — a nonsensical workaround in a status quo in which schools and conferences cannot directly pay athletes. The argument that a tennis player accepting prize money is too closely tied to pay-for-play holds far less water when you compare it to what is happening in sports such as football and men’s basketball.

UNC tennis player Reese Brantmeier has sued the NCAA for not allowing college athletes to accept prize money and maintain their eligibility. (Preston Mack / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The current system may not be what it is for much longer anyway, as a laundry list of lawsuits continue to chip away at the NCAA’s longstanding legal arguments in defense of its version of amateurism. In the meantime, the organization and all college athletes are stuck in a sort of gray area, as rules that may have made sense once upon a time exist unchallenged until the spotlight shines squarely upon them.

That light has found the NCAA’s hypocritical stance on prize money. It is blindingly bright against the backdrop of million-dollar NIL deals and recruiting inducements-that-aren’t-supposed-to-be-inducements. It’s wild to think that college sports’ governing body could be forcing tennis players to go pro instead of allowing them to go to class and compete collegiately while accepting prize money at various events. Or that the NCAA could bar a collegiate sprinter who beats the world’s fastest from accepting money from World Athletics simply because it’s not run through the USOPC.

All that these draconian rules do is push elite athletes to leave campus earlier than they’d like. That’s not what the NCAA should ever be doing, intentionally or not.

So, here’s a chance to right a wrong. Here’s a chance for a common-sense win amid several losses in court. Let college athletes keep their prize money — and their eligibility, too.

(Top photo of Athing Mu, who left Texas A&M to turn pro just before the 2021 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, celebrating her gold medal in the women’s 800-meter at the Tokyo Olympics: Jewel Samad / AFP via Getty Images)


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