Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky was once again in the headlines this month, but this time it was not for another athletic accomplishment.
Instead, Ledecky announced the end of her swimming career at Stanford University.
The decision may seem surprising for a 21 year old with five NCAA championship titles, however, the explanation lies in her five corresponding Olympic medals.
Ledecky’s international success has made her one of the most marketable athletes in the nation, prompting millions of dollars worth of sponsorship offers.
Though these opportunities may seem like a deserved reward, they become a significant trade-off for premier college athletes due to the NCAA’s regulations on amateurism.
To be eligible to compete in Division I or II athletics, student athletes must be classified as amatures, meaning that they are to take no salaried compensation or other financial benefits for competing.
These regulations pertain to corporate sponsorships, the acceptance of which are seen as professional activity in the eyes of the NCAA.
As a result, if a student-athlete is presented with sponsorship opportunities, they are forced to choose between continuing their career as a student athlete or becoming a professional and accepting lucrative sponsorships.
Though Ledecky will continue to take classes at Stanford, she ultimately decided that the money was too much to forfeit and turned professional.
Anyone, especially college students, can understand and agree with the financial practicality of Ledecky’s decision, it is still a tragedy for the NCAA as one of its most famous athletes is forced to leave its arena of competition.
Athletes’ financial opportunities are limited in comparison to students with non-athletic passions such as art, music or science.
This creates an unfair disadvantage in an area that is a common source of stress among college students across the nation.
The NCAA insists that “maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority” in collegiate athletics.
However, these bureaucratic regulation undermines the very purpose of the organization as it creates obstacles for students to accomplish that goal.
This is not to say that amateurism is not without purpose.
There is an important argument to be made for amateurism protecting students from the pressures associated with market-driven athletics.
It is not a prodigious leap to conclude that the introduction of direct financial benefits into college sports would result in academics taking a back seat in favor of students performing for their sponsors over their school.
Keeping athletics limited to a student’s involvement with their university ensures a certain level of focus in the classroom as well as on the field, as the two worlds remain equally important.
It is a shame that inspirational athletes such as Katie Ledecky cannot be representations of a balance between academic and athletic excellence in tandem, but instead must be forced to prioritize one over the other.
Student athletes should be able to live in both roles, and the NCAA ought to be working to remove obstacles rather than create them.
However, the organization does serve a special role in preserving an emphasis on academics over finances.
The NCAA is caught between two worthy causes, two means of caring for the well-being of students.
There must be a middle road to be found between supporting the immediate practical needs of students, and caring for their futures as well.
The tension between finances and academics is one that affects college students everywhere and from all walks of life, and by addressing the issue the NCAA could take an opportunity to set an example for finding a reasonable solution not just for students under their jurisdiction but for students nationwide.
K’reisa is a first-year studying business administration.