One of the most popular stories on the U.S.Olympic team this week was the performance of 16-year-old swimmer Missy Franklin: 6-foot-1 with women’s size 13 feet, the high school junior already has four medals, two of them gold.
A surefire star for years to come, Franklin should be on her way to a big payday. But Franklin, in a rare decision, has decided to decline all endorsements and prize money in order to keep her status as an amateur athlete.
The paychecks that she’s turning down are staggering. Last November, she won $73,000 in four days at an international meet. It wasn’t the first time she’d won money, but it was a lot for a family. Her parents met with her and they made the tough decision to refuse it, even with Missy a favorite in the upcoming Olympics.
She’d soon be in an even tougher spot.
Most Olympic viewers are unaware that the athletes are competing for more than national pride, personal achievement or exposure. There are (taxable) cash prizes and incentives offered by countries’ Olympic committees. The U.S. Olympic Committee pays out $25,000 per gold medal, $15,000 per silver and $10,000 per bronze. There are additional bonuses for specific sports like swimming and wrestling.
Franklin’s take should be north of $100,000, but she’s going to pass that by, too.
Like talented amateurs in all sports, she faces drawbacks to taking the money and therefore becoming a professional. The NCAA does not allow pro athletes, and Franklin is surely in line for a cost free education worth several hundred thousand dollars.
Amateurs also can get entry slots reserved for them in tournament fields. Pros have to earn their way in, but the amateurs can get cost free high-quality practice. Cases like this are usually in individual sports with less exposure, and while amateurs might not steal the headlines, they often compete seriously with the pros.
For a brief time last June, in the middle of the Friday round, a 17-year-old was the leader of the U.S. Open. Beau Hossler was somehow atop the leaderboard at a course so long and arduous that the winner finished at one over par for the tournament.
Hossler faded a bit as the weekend wore on, but he still finished in a tie for 29th. Jordan Spieth, another amateur, rose to tie for 21st place.
Despite playing better than competitors with major championships, neither golfer made a dollar in prize money. Spieth would have made about $70,000, Hossler around $45,000. Even if Hossler or Spieth had won the tournament, his entire prize money would have gone back into the pool to be split among the pros. The USGA makes amateurs waive the right to prize money before entering the tournament, so they can’t change their mind and go pro before their last putt.
"She's a better person than I am," said Todd Schmitz, Missy Franklin’s coach, speaking about the choice to refuse her earnings. I’d have to agree with that.