“These athletes aren’t saying, ‘Pay me,’ they’re saying, ‘If I could just use that little bit of prize money I got or hold it until after I graduate to pay rent that would really help me.’
“To be honest, there’s a lot of red tape around what is deemed actual and necessary per NCAA rules to help with an elite athlete’s training. The hard thing is the rules are written to be the same for everyone, and many of them were written as a reaction to football and basketball. Some needs are so unique and sport specific, and what a fencer needs isn’t the same as what a swimmer needs so that becomes complicated.”
That’s Sarah Wilhelmi, the Director of Collegiate Partnerships at the United States Olympic Committee, speaking about a crucial – and properly low-profile – outreach effort to not only America’s collegiate athletes, but to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and colleges as well.
She was hired in 2016 after then-USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun noted the changing nature of college athletics, funding and the building pressure on schools to cut sports other than men’s football and men’s and women’s basketball.
Wilhelmi shared the progress being made on the TeamUSA.org site in an interview with Karen Price that underscores how seriously the USOC takes the collegiate issue.
“Prior to 2016, college sports were in flux with conference realignments and lawsuits and restructuring with the autonomous five conferences,” she noted. “There was a lot of anxiety on the side of the Olympic Movement to become better entrenched and make sure that Olympic sports remain strong at the college level.”
Wilhelmi explained that in addition to being able to retain some money, collegiate athletes also asked for more flexibility in competition scheduling, and especially help with the transition from being an NCAA athletes to a professional:
“[It’s] the difficulty transitioning from college to post-college. There’s no road map. You’ve never had to think about an agent and money and all the many nuances in that competitive space. Sponsorships, agents, that’s all brand new and you don’t have the infrastructure you had in college, you’re building it on your own.
“A lot of athletes say, ‘If only I had a mentor, if only I had this knowledge it would have been helpful.’ That tells us that the USOC and possibly the NCAA can help athletes with the transition into the professional side.”
Collegiate athletes, especially at the big schools, are supported not only with partial or full scholarships, but housing, coaching, uniforms, shoes, facilities, athletic training and medical support. Post-college, all of these elements are questions, and even for those fortunate enough to get funding through grants or scholarships, coaching, facilities and medical support can be difficult.
The USOC now recognizes how important this is to its Olympic teams. Wilhelmi noted that “ One thing we learned from our analysis was 80 percent of the Rio team came from colleges and of those college athletes almost 75 percent came from the autonomous five conferences.” Those would be the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 10, Big XII, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference.
To create an effective outreach group, the USOC Collegiate Advisory Council was created, with Wilhelmi noting the help of current Big XII commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Kevin White, the Director of Athletics at Duke University.
She says the effort is paying off. “It really is a shared passion to be athlete-centered and do right for the athletes. In that vein it has been a real commitment among the college leaders, the [U.S. National Governing Bodies], the NCAA and us to see, how do we do this?
“And it’s cool because never before has there been this hunger for change, and we want to capitalize. There’s been a lot of reform in the world of college basketball and we want to chase their coattails and do the same for our Olympians.”
Simply put, the United States Olympic Team would be crippled without the collegiate development programs currently in place at NCAA institutions. But having Olympians at a school is a marketable return on investment, whether for donors or for the institutions themselves, especially to ensure compliance with Title IX requirements for women’s sports.
Good for the USOC in seeing the need and following through to promoting the value of Olympic sports programs to the schools and to the NCAA itself. The enormous collegiate sports infrastructure in the U.S. gives the USOC a unique advantage which is unmatched in any country in the world.
Truth be told, the NCAA and NAIA programs in gymnastics, swimming, track & field and other Olympic sports is almost as important to other countries – like Egypt, Jamaica and Singapore to name a few – as it is to the USOC. That shouldn’t be lost on Wilhelmi and the new USOC leadership as it works with other countries on common goals in the Olympic Movement; those countries have a lot to lose as well.