Keith Strudler: Going Pro
Now that we’ve crowned a national champion in men’s college basketball, the sport enters its version of what Major League Baseball calls Hot Stove. It’s when a handful of elite college basketball players, a lot of them still in their first year of school, decide whether they are going to enter the NBA draft. For some, it’s a fairly foregone conclusion – like Michael Porter of Missouri or Marvin Bagley of Duke, both fab freshmen who should be drafted in the top five this summer. In fact, the majority of most mock draft boards are made up of what we call one-and-dones, with a few sophomores and upperclassmen thrown in. Honestly, it looks like the roster for an intro college psych class.
College football goes through a slightly similar but somewhat different process, namely because athletes have to be at least three years out of high school before going pro. So it feels more like graduation day than pledge week to a fraternity. But still, star football athletes have to decide whether to finish out college or start earning money for their efforts, name, and likeness. This whole process is the bane of countless arguments about the value of a college scholarship and the ethics of restricting job opportunities, among other things. It’s also the genesis of a bunch of illicit and perhaps even illegal activity, including the current scandal involving shoe companies and coaches and bribes.
That said, with all the excitement about which college basketball players might declare for the draft in the next few weeks, there’s one college athlete that just went pro that didn’t get much attention. But it’s not a basketball player. And it’s not a he. It’s Katie Ledecky. You probably remember that name as one of the stars of the 2016 Rio Olympics, where Ledecky won four gold and one silver medal in swimming, becoming one of the most recognizable and marketable athletes on the planet. But in 2016, Ledecky didn’t make any money – unlike pretty much every other gold medalist in Rio. Even after her historic win in Rio, Ledecky did what most 19-year-olds with stellar grades and extracurricular do. She went to college, Stanford to be precise, to remain an amateur athlete. There she proceeded to win NCAA titles with ease for the past two years, doing things like winning title events by over 20 seconds.
Her college career made it impossible to a) train specifically for long course pools like you’d see in the Olympics, and b) earn any endorsement money off her name or likeness. Like say a Wheaties box. So this week, Ledecky announced she would no longer be swimming for the Cardinal, but instead would become a professional swimmer, which has far less structural boundaries than sports like football and basketball. There’s no draft, and no professional leagues. And her biggest event will still be the Olympic Games. What it means is that she’s no longer bound by NCAA rules and she can plaster her face on any product willing to write a check.
Not surprisingly, very few people outside of the collegiate swimming world will care much about this decision. There is a host of reasons for this, virtually all of them economic. Swimmers have limited fiscal appeal to a university. So even if Katie Ledecky stops swimming for Stanford, the University will do just fine. The same isn’t always true for, say, the starting point guard at Kentucky. Second, Ledecky‘s revenue potential comes almost exclusively from corporate sponsors. Winning at the Olympic Games is little more than a vehicle for sales. So every day Katie spends as an amateur is one day less she can pedal things like Snickers and McDonalds. And especially given the short shelf life of Olympic medalists, it is perhaps more essential that a swimmer capitalize early and often than, say, a future NBA star with multiyear contracts in waiting.
But outside of the economic realities, there are optics in this distinction. Katie Ledecky is a swimmer, a predominately white sport of relative privilege. That’s in stark contrast to college revenue sports like basketball and football, predominantly African-American sports where a large percentage come from modest backgrounds. So when sports administrators and fans bemoan the saga of athletes using college simply as a holding pen before going pro, they should at least be aware of the hypocrisy. And unlike swimmers, basketball players and football players are essentially forced into the cartel that is elite college sports. Katie Ledecky could have gone pro whenever she wanted to – like back in 2016, which I’m guessing she might have if she really needed the money. An 18-year-old basketball player has few options other than to play for some brand name sports school.
Perhaps that’s changing, as athletes are looking at places like the G League or Europe instead of simply playing for free. And a lot of savvy college basketball coaches are starting to realize it’s sometimes easier to win with less talented seniors than more talented, one-foot-out-the-door freshman. And then there’s all the scandals.
Will big time college sports start to look more like, swimming? Probably not anytime soon. Which is why Katie Ledecky’s decision earned hardly a glance.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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