Buried among the March Madness storylines this past couple of weeks was Stanford University’s defense of its 2017 women’s swimming and diving championship (and the program’s 11th overall title). That Stanford would win seemed a foregone conclusion. After all, the planet’s best women’s swimmer, Katie Ledecky, a five-time Olympic gold medalist, competed for the Cardinal and won two titles. “Competed” is the correct verb tense, because on Monday, March 26, Ledecky announced she was going professional with two years of eligibility left.
College athletes leaving early to turn professional occurs all the time in the high-profile team sports of basketball, football, baseball, and, most recently, hockey, where former Harvard star Ryan Donato is now splitting his time between Cambridge and the Boston Bruins locker room.
But we rarely hear about this in more traditional individual sports such as swimming. And the fact that Ledecky announced this one month after the conclusion of the recently completed Olympic Winter Games in Korea makes examining NCAA-U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) relations appropriate.
Those Games presented an opportunity for both the USOC and the NCAA to trumpet how the two organizations complement one another. According to a Feb. 11 USOC news release, 36 percent of Team USA’s 244 athletes were student-athletes in the NCAA. Lead1 President and CEO Tom McMillen, himself a former Olympic athlete, used these statistics to emphasize the role of college athletics in Olympic sports, commenting “without college sports, there would be no U.S. Olympic team.”
Perhaps this was true 30 years ago, before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) thumbed its collective nose at amateurism and decided that having the biggest basketball stars on the planet play in the Olympic Games was really good for the financial business of the Olympics. Indeed, one of the greatest things about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team was that it was a collection of college athletes led by a college coach. The 2018 version of the team, while led by University of Wisconsin coach Tony Granato, was a collection of primarily non-NHL professional players, some of whom did not play college hockey at all. One of the ones who did, Donato, is now a professional.
Do college sports continue to have a significant role in developing Olympic athletes as McMillen intimated? As Ledecky’s announcement suggests, NCAA rules make it difficult for athletes to become elite international competitors and occasionally force these athletes to choose one lifestyle over another.
Ledecky is not the first high-profile athlete to be forced to choose between Olympic endorsement dollars and the “student-athlete experience.” Consider former University of Colorado football star Jeremy Bloom who sued the NCAA in 2002 to allow him to enjoy endorsements from his career as a moguls skier while also playing football for the Buffaloes. In September 2004, the NCAA’s appeals committee denied Bloom’s request to do both, and Bloom opted to be a skier. He later entered the NFL as a kick returner and wide receiver. Bloom had argued unsuccessfully that he was an Olympian and World Champion skier before he was ever a college athlete. Which, like Ledecky, was true. Sort of like how Chris Weinke was a professional baseball player before he was ever a college football player and Heisman Trophy winner, but the NCAA permitted that.
Missy Franklin may have been influenced by Bloom’s case, as she was also an Olympian before becoming a college athlete. Franklin decided to forego millions in endorsements following her stellar performance at the 2012 London Olympics in order to become a collegiate swimmer at the University of California. She would voluntarily surrender that declaration in 2015, just in time to receive endorsement monies and train for the 2016 Olympics. Even with this knowledge, the NCAA made Franklin the cover-girl for a Winter 2015 story in Champion, the association’s house-organ.
For the NCAA to claim it contributed to the Olympic successes of Ledecky, Bloom or Franklin would seem disingenuous at best. Similarly, it seems to be a stretch for the NCAA to tie 2018 Olympic speedskater Brittany Bowe’s experience as a starting basketball player at Florida Atlantic University to Olympic fame, or attribute Carlo Valdes’s bobsledding success to his experience as a javelin thrower at UCLA. Sure the association can extol the importance of the team dynamic and hard work, but speedskating and bobsledding are, obviously, not NCAA sports. The technical skills they acquired to become Olympic athletes did not come from playing college sport. In fact, a closer look at the detail provided by the NCAA suggests a high number of the 2018 Olympians with college sport experience participated in a sport DIFFERENT than what they competed in as student-athletes. Further, many of those who did make the Olympic team matriculated at exclusive, private liberal arts schools such as Middlebury, Bates, Bowdoin, and any number of Ivy and Patriot League schools, as opposed to the highly visible commercial college sport enterprises which dominate March Madness.
Immediately after the close of the 2018 Games, the Washington Post’s outstanding sportswriter Sally Jenkins authored a scorching takedown of the USOC and its priorities, including criticism of the compensation paid to USOC executives. This critique has similarly been levied at the NCAA and its leadership, along with college athletic directors and head coaches. Given the plethora of negative headlines about both the USOC (Larry Nasser) and the NCAA (FBI investigations), perhaps each organization should make sure its own houses are in order before they go seeking to capitalize off each other’s successes.
What the two organizations need to do first, and foremost, is to figure out a way to allow athletes such as Ledecky, Bloom, and Franklin the opportunity to be both Olympians and college athletes. In the wake of Ledecky’s announcement, Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel authored, as usual, a well-reasoned rebuke of the NCAA and its “white-knuckle” grip on “amateurism.” It is worth the read as it illustrates the ridiculousness of the NCAA’s belief that athletes cannot be a professional athlete and a college athlete simultaneously.
In fact, history tells a much different story about the level of cooperation or, more correctly, disagreement, which has existed between the NCAA and the USOC. On multiple occasions dating back to the 1920s, the NCAA has withdrawn from the Olympic governance structure.
A 1923 dispute between the NCAA and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the organization responsible for organizing athletes for Olympic Games, nearly cost University of Southern California sprinter Charles Paddock the opportunity to compete at the 1924 Games. The AAU argued because Paddock had received money to offset travel expenses from organizers of a French track meet and disqualified him as an amateur. Paddock and NCAA President Palmer Pierce took their concerns to the media, with Paddock declaring, “the AAU hasn’t any authority over members of the National Collegiate Association and can’t dictate to them” (as quoted in Arnold Flath, 1964, p. 66). A “full-fledged fight” (according to Flath) erupted between the NCAA and the AAU with NCAA members declaring their intention to determine the eligibility of all college athletes going forward.
Paddock eventually applied for reinstatement to the AAU without apologizing and the AAU, by a 4-1 vote, agreed to allow him to compete in the 1924 Olympic Games. The ordeal prompted Flath to conclude decades later the case was “generally seen as a test of strength between the two opposing sports bodies in a contest for control of athletics in the United States and the control of the American Olympic Committee” (p. 73).
This test continued a few years later when the NCAA again voted to withdraw from the AOA, this time because the AAU voting bloc in the organization elected its former president William Prout to serve as AOA president. A truce was brokered in 1927 by Brigadier General Douglas Macarthur who was elected AOA president in 1927 when Proust passed away. But college officials clearly had a chip on their shoulder. On the eve of the 1928 Olympics, John Griffith, commissioner for the Western Conference, which would become the Big Ten, called AAU officials “cheap politicians” who gained control through “intimidation” by barring athletes from amateur competition if they entered non-AAU sanctioned meets (as quoted in Robert Lehr, 1985, p. 177).
Relations between the NCAA and what would become the USOC remained workable until after the 1972 Olympics, when the NCAA once again withdrew. The catalyst this time, according to Jack Falla, author of the 1981 NCAA autobiography, “NCAA: The voice of college sports,” was an amendment to the USOC constitution which specified that a majority of votes in the committee must be reserved for internationally recognized governing bodies. According to Falla, the NCAA was concerned that the majority of athletes who competed for Team USA were college athletes, but they had no influence within the Olympic governance structure.
President Gerald Ford formed the President’s Commission on Olympic Sports in 1974 to address the organizational in-fighting and declining performance by the U.S. in the Olympics. In the resulting legislation, the Amateur Sports Act, Congress gave the USOC power over all matters pertaining to the United States’ participation in the Olympic Games. Disputes were to be settled through arbitration, and the NCAA immediately took exception to an athletes right section which permitted “unrestricted” competition for athletes, meaning both domestic and international. Thus the USOC was taking a strong position for athletes’ rights, while the NCAA refused to accept such a policy citing that it would bring about “irreparable disruption” (as quoted in Kenny Moore, 1979, p. 63).
Already burdened by the recent federal legislation of Title IX, NCAA executive director Walter Byers refused to discuss the athletes’ rights issues, stating that no further legislation affecting educational programs could meet with their support (Moore, 1979). The USOC agreed to drop the athletes’ rights section of the bill if the NCAA did not oppose the remaining sections, rejoined the USOC and became subject to its athletes’ rights requirements. The NCAA initially balked at the second condition but agreed to join in late 1978 (Moore, 1979).
Since the Amateur Sports Act’s passage, the NCAA and the USOC mostly played nicely with several prominent cross-organizational leadership ties. For nearly the entire decade of the 1990s former college athletic administrators served as USOC executive directors. The run began in 1989 when Dr. Harvey Schiller left the Southeastern Conference commissioner chair to become head of the USOC, a position he held until 1994. Following an interim executive director, Dick Schultz, the man who replaced Byers at the NCAA, served as executive director of the USOC from 1995-2000.
From 2003-04, William C. Martin, athletic director at the University of Michigan, served as the interim USOC president, a voluntary board position. While in that role, he oversaw a major restructuring to the USOC’s board of directors, downsizing from a board of more than 120 members to a board of 11 members. This overhaul prompted a joint letter to Martin, dated Sept. 19, 2003 and authored by representatives of the NCAA, NJCAA, NAIA and NFHS. In that letter, the authors stated:
“We were hopeful that the reform movement would alter our belief that the education-based organizations have never, either before or after passage of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 (the Act), enjoyed a voice in USOC affairs commensurate with our members’ relative contributions to the development of American world-class athletes. That contribution is measured in terms of numbers of athletes, coaching, or facilities and services.”
In the wake of the USOC board reorganization, both associations seemed to recognize the need for some level of cooperation between them. In 2004, the USOC and the NCAA created a joint Task Force “designed to protect and expand the opportunities for American student-athletes and coaches to realize the benefits associated with participation in collegiate athletic programs and sports traditionally included in the program for the Olympic Games.” The Task Force’s report included eight recommendations, mostly focused on at-risk and emerging sports, such as wrestling, swimming, and tennis.
The success of these recommendations is difficult to measure. Former USOC executive director Scott Blackmun’s declaration in 2014 of an “urgent” need to help college sports, particularly those with dwindling collegiate participation rates and Olympic ties such as wrestling, suggested the Task Force failed completely. Blackmun reiterated this stance in 2015 while speaking to the Collegiate Commissioners Association. Finally, in May 2016, the USOC acted, hiring West Coast Conference staffer Sarah Wilhelmi to be the organization’s first director of collegiate partnerships.
One area in which some measure of common ground was achieved, at least temporarily, was in the area of paying college athletes as part of the USOC’s Operation Gold program without violating NCAA rules for winning medals. USA Today’s Steve Berkowitz pointed out on the eve of the 2016 Olympics in Rio that a college wrestler who won a gold medal was in line to receive $250,000. As Vice Sports’s Patrick Hruby noted, athletes playing in large revenue generating sports such as football and basketball were not eligible for these “performance bonuses.” However, when Singapore awarded University of Texas swimmer Joseph Schooling $740,000 for his Olympic gold medal, NCAA President Mark Emmert suggested the membership may need to rethink its rules on accepting money for medals.
In many ways, McMillen is correct. The USOC needs college athletics. Sports such as wrestling, ice hockey, and track and field often rely on the college system to train and develop athletes at no expense to the governing body. Every member of the gold-medal winning 2018 U.S. Women’s Ice Hockey team played college hockey, a clear signal that Title IX and college sport have positively impacted the USOC.
But college athletics also needs the USOC. Recommendation 1 of the 2005 Task Force was for joint NCAA and USOC investment in a new charitable foundation for the purpose of fostering the sponsorship of Olympic sports in colleges and universities. This foundation was to be in place and operational early in 2006. To the best of my knowledge and research, this never occurred. College sport would certainly benefit from incentives aimed at increasing participation in Olympic sports. The USOC did open, in 2013, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation. However, its “About the Foundation” webpage does not mention college sports at all.