Olympic cash muddles NCAA eligibility waters

Olympic cash muddles NCAA eligibility waters

Published Aug. 22, 2012 7:34 p.m. ET

There is a way to earn money in your sport while being a college athlete. And not only does it conform to NCAA rules, the ruling body encourages it. Go on, take the money. It's easy.   

All you have to do is win an Olympic medal.  

That's right: under a USOC program called Operation Gold, a gold medal winner gets a check for $25,000, a silver medalist takes home $15,000 and a bronze medal is worth $10,000.

According to Chris Radford, an NCAA media relations official in Indianapolis, "NCAA legislation allows prospective or current student-athletes who represent the USA in the Olympics to receive Operation Gold funds from the United States Olympic Committee. As a result, the USOC is allowed to provide funds as a reward for prospects and enrolled student-athletes who earn medals at the Olympics, with no specific restrictions regarding the amounts provided."  

So, 16-year-old Gabby Douglas came home from London $50,000 richer and still eligible to compete at the college of her choosing.

However, Douglas could forfeit her eligibility if she goes through with the announced photo spread for the Kellogg Company. Both Douglas and Kellogg have confirmed that a photo of her appearing on the podium with her gold medal will make it onto select boxes of Corn Flakes.  

That is a violation.    

In Bloom v. NCAA, a Colorado appellate court ruled in favor of the NCAA's position that an athlete would forfeit amateur status is he or she accepted endorsement money.

Bloom was a football player at Colorado and an Olympic skier. When he was paid for skiing endorsements, the NCAA deemed him ineligible on the football field, claiming that endorsement money from one activity was indistinguishable from funds for other activities.   

The court agreed, which leaves the state of amateur athletics in a convoluted mess.  

Swimming sensation and high school senior Missy Franklin made $100,000 from the USOC for her medals. But if she accepts a free meal from a coach or a swimsuit from Speedo, she will violate the rules and probably be deemed ineligible to compete at the college level.  

The same thing goes for Georgia swimmer Allison Schmitt, who took home $100,000 from the USOC, but would be suspended if she sold her Olympic swimsuit on eBay for $50.   

"Beyond the exception that our membership has made for student-athletes representing our country in the Olympics, accepting a salary from a professional team or endorsement money based on athletic ability would be in violation of NCAA amateurism principles," Radford wrote in a statement that mirrors the NCAA manual.

Beyond the obvious common-sense problems – track stars could accept six figures from the USOC, but not shoes from Nike – there is also a problem of discrimination based on nationality.  

Ade Alleyne-Forte from LSU and Deon Lendore from Texas A&M both won bronze medals for their homeland of Trinidad and Tobago. Their medals are the same size and shape as those won by American athletes, and the podiums they stood on in London were exactly the same.

But because they are governed by the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee, not the USOC, any compensation the TRI pays them would run afoul of the NCAA carve out.  

Then there are the non-Olympic athletes like Enes Kanter who accepted the bare minimum from a Turkish basketball team – a pittance compared to the $100k Franklin and Schmitt took home from London – but Kanter was deemed ineligible to play at Kentucky.

In short, it's a mess.  

The NCAA's current rules of amateurism state that you are a violator if you accept, "Any payment, including actual and necessary expenses, conditioned on the individual's or team's place, finish or performance, or given on an incentive basis, or receipt of expenses in excess of the same reasonable amount for permissible expenses given to all individuals or team members involved in the competition."  

But if you're fortunate enough to be a red-blooded American in school during an Olympic year, that definition goes out the window. Riches await you on the podium and your eligibility will still be around.