Friday, July 8, 2011

To Swim or Not To Swim

In the fall of 2000, after Michael Phelps became the youngest member of the 2000 Olympic team, he was interviewed in a newspaper. The article featured a young, baby-faced Phelps talking into a microphone. He was wearing a Michigan hat featuring a bright yellow "M" logo. The interviewer asked him about the hat. He said something like, "It's always been a dream to go to Michigan." 

A few years later, Phelps became a Wolverine.

But he wasn't allowed to compete in the NCAA. Phelps made the decision to "turn professional" and accept money/sponsors. This meant accepting prize money at the Olympics, for 8 Olympic medals (6 golds) -- money not many would turn down for NCAA eligibility. Subsequently, Phelps was never allowed to compete in one "official" NCAA race, though he did swim some non-scoring exhibitions, sometimes against my college team. 

Everyone knows the troubles of Ohio State, another Big Ten team. The scandals. "TattooGate." It ignited an already-hot debate: "Should NCAA athletes be paid?" You can argue both ways -- sports analysts/columnists do. While I've been an advocate against paying NCAA athletes (isn't a college scholarship enough?), let's take a look at the Michael Phelps situation.

Arguably, when Phelps gave up NCAA eligibility, it hurt the NCAA. It's like Michael Jordan not allowed to compete in the NCAA. It hurt the NCAA. Phelps couldn't race in the Big Ten Championships, couldn't race at the NCAA Championships. There are no NCAA records set by Phelps, nothing official in the NCAA record books. It's like he never existed -- because he didn't. Phelps would compete alongside the NCAAs, swimming in another meet, shaved and tapered, and set ridiculous records in yards -- records that would have lit up the scoreboard, smashed current NCAA records, brought the crowd to their feet, made headlines, perhaps even gotten airtime on ESPN/SI/NBC. 

Crowds would have packed the stands. Media. In other words, interest in swimming. 

Instead, Phelps had to exhibition his races, swimming during diving breaks, oftentimes by himself.  Which still garnered interest. But not the same. 

Is this ideal? No, of course not. You don't want the Michael Jordan of swimming unable to compete in your organization. It hurts everyone involved.

You can argue that NCAA athletes should never get paid. They shouldn't. But consider the unlikely event of another "Phelps situation" -- a situation where the greatest Olympic athlete of all-time was prohibited from participating in the NCAA -- and say to yourself, "Couldn't we find a better solution here?"

We've been seeing some of the same with Missy Franklin. Superstar in the making. Capable of anything, it seems. This year alone, she's given up $40,000 in prize money (she won both the UltraSwim and the USA Swimming Grand Prix series, and the year isn't over yet). She donated it to charity. A college scholarship is the same cost -- around 40k/year at a private school like Stanford -- but you have to wonder what will happen if she continues down this Phelspian model of Olympic success. What then? Will she be forced to choose between making a living or the joys & memories of NCAA swimming? 

I don't know the answer. I don't pretend to know the answer. And certainly this is a relatively isolated incident, as not many swimmers could ever achieve the marktability that Phelps did between 2004-2008. 

But swimming -- like many other Olympic sports -- has no "next step." There is no professional league, no Super Bowl, no Wimbleton, no PGA Tournament. The Olympics are it. 

Isn't it in the best interest of everyone -- the athlete, the NCAA, the sport of swimming -- to find some creative solution? It just doesn't make sense, to ban the greatest Olympic athlete ever from your organization. 

Does it?

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you. Phelps missing from NCAA is such a loss for everyone, maybe even for Phelps himself. On the other hand, what chance would other swimmers have had against him? Seems unfair to have a student-swimmer competing against a professional swimmer, in my opinion.