It wasn’t for the NFL or the NBA Draft. Instead, it was redshirt freshman Mallory Pugh — a star forward for the U.S. soccer team who debuted in the Olympics at the age of 17 — making the headlines. On Monday morning, Pugh made the decision to forgo her remaining four years of college eligibility in order to pursue a professional soccer career.
Pugh isn’t the first women’s soccer player to make this move — Lindsey Horan did the same two years ago, skipping the college process completely to play for Paris Saint-Germain F.C. in France. This decision is common among Olympic athletes in every sport. The reason? A set of NCAA rules that hold back college Olympians from receiving the same compensation as the rest of their team.
Due to NCAA restrictions, Olympians still can’t accept any form of payment or gifts from their federations. That means that Olympic athletes forgo massive paychecks in order to earn a college education.
Katie Ledecky, the current Stanford swimmer who won five gold medals in the Rio Olympics, made this fact famous when she was forced to refuse a waffle maker during a stint on The Ellen Degeneres Show. Despite the fact that she’d recently set multiple world records and won gold medals along the way, Ledecky couldn’t accept the gift in order to protect her “amateur” status in the NCAA.
The irony of this situation is that athletes like Pugh and Ledecky aren’t “amateurs” in any regard. Sure, they’re still college students and yes, they’ve only been legal adults for a few years. But these athletes represent some of the top competitors in the world, and they have already shaped and molded the future of their sports. Ledecky will always set the bar in any pool that she swims in, and Pugh is tough enough for veteran opponents to guard despite being only 18 years old.
Ultimately, Olympic athletes who decide to stay in college take on the duties of both an Olympian and a college athlete, but forgo many of the rewards of both teams. When the Olympics and the World Cup roll around, these elite athletes will even skip out on college practices and games to travel to national team camps and events. And many athletes won’t benefit from the free education that is considered “compensation” for their time as a college athlete — take, for example, former USC women’s soccer player Amy Rodriguez, who delayed her graduation in order to compete in the 2008 Olympics.
When discussions of NCAA player compensation and amateur restrictions are brought up, the most common argument in defense of these rules is one that protects sports such as women’s soccer or swimming. The main concern is that compensation and gifts would be aimed mainly at sports that turn a profit, such as football or men’s basketball, without the same funds being spread to less popular sports. This would seem unfair, especially since every college athletics team works the same demanding hours and invests the same level of effort while chasing a national title.
But the issue of national team compensation flips that argument completely on its head. When it comes to paying Olympic athletes, football and men’s basketball are completely removed from the conversation, as one is not an Olympic sport and the other fields a team of NBA players. In the Olympics, the teams stacked with NCAA talent are the less popular events that could be hurt by player compensation — anything from swimming and women’s soccer to water polo and gymnastics.
The intricacies of NCAA player compensation can be debated for hours, but this specific issue is simple. Olympic athletes should be allowed to accept money for their work on their national teams. The compensation comes from national federations, meaning that it puts no pressure on colleges to spend athletic funds on player paychecks rather than scholarships or other expenditures. This type of compensation also doesn’t allow fans to sway athletes or violate any type of “gift-giving” regulations that the NCAA feels are necessary.
In the end, there aren’t any clear reasons why the NCAA does not allow student Olympians to accept the same rewards as the rest of the team. After all, the athletes accept their medals — which are priced upwards of $500 — along with piles of team-branded gear, free flights and team events that include free games, concerts and more. The extension of a team salary seems as if it would follow common logic.
And in the end, how are these restrictions truly helping the NCAA? Whether or not Pugh or Ledecky enter their school with a U.S. salary in their bank account, they will remain the top athletes of their age groups. No amount of national team payment could change the fact that these athletes are the best of the best, and they certainly wouldn’t do anything about the fact that Ledecky will lap most of her competition, NCAA or international.
Pugh’s decision could put her at a level of risk that male college-stars-turned-pro don’t necessarily face, as women’s soccer doesn’t have the same financial payout as men’s sports like football or basketball. Although Pugh already has the star power to become the next Alex Morgan or Mia Hamm, her paycheck after a couple of years in the NWSL or the Euro Leagues will be only a fraction of the salary of men’s basketball or football
Nonetheless, taking the leap into professional soccer this early is a gamble that, barring injuries, will pay off in the long run for Pugh. And next season, the NCAA will miss out on one of the most explosive players in the game.
It’s time for the NCAA to make a change. Allowing athletes to reap the benefits of their Olympic glory won’t do anything to hurt the college game — and it might, in fact, help it.
Julia Poe is a sophomore studying print and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs on Wednesdays.