The NCAA rules on what financial awards that their amateur athletes are, and are not, allowed to receive are complex, convoluted, and sometimes not fine-tuned until a rule is violated and hairs have to be split.
It would be impossible to break down the entire can of worms in a single article, but in an effort to address a specific upcoming situation, we’ll narrow-in on one specific and topical question: “What happens to the prize money earned by American, current or future, NCAA athletes at the Short Course World Championships (and similar meets)?”
To start at the root of the question, the $1.173 million up for grabs at the Short Course World Championships is not necessarily paid directly to athletes. From FINA’s perspective, the National Federation of a swimmer receiving prize money must inform FINA of whether that money should be paid directly to the athlete or to the National Federation. Keeping in mind that different countries around the world all have different circumstances and domestic laws governing these subjects, in many cases we’d hope that the money is then distributed to the athletes who earned it, but that’s not necessarily the case.
In the U.S., it is, except in the case of amateur athletes, who are limited in the prize money that they can earn.
For starters, athletes can take prize money up to their actual and necessary travel expenses for the year related to competing. That means any training or competition trips for which costs were not covered by USA Swimming or anyone else. Prize money can be used to offset those costs for NCAA athletes.
Any money earned beyond that level, in the case of the United States, goes into the National Team Athlete Endowment, according to USA Swimming. That money is then distributed to National Team athletes through grants. That money cannot be earmarked specifically for those athletes who earn it, though they can later apply for those grants once their eligibility has been exhausted.
Note that this is specific to FINA meets, and doesn’t necessarily apply to other meets, which might choose to simply not award money if the winning athletes declines it. For example, if an NCAA eligible athlete finishes 1st in the TYR Pro Swim Series standings, the series bonus is not awarded, and not given to the next-athlete-in-line either.
There are also a number of foreign ‘amateurs’ that compete and earn prize money at these meets from other countries, but those situations are harder to speak to (and harder for the NCAA to control). It’s likely that there are cases, across sports, of international athletes being paid in their home countries in ways that would be in violation of NCAA rules, but the NCAA simply doesn’t have the authority to reach across borders and catch them.
There are often domestic rewards associated with these meets in addition to money awarded by FINA. By NCAA rule, money earned through “Operation Gold” programs, or similar programs offered by other National Olympic Committees based on finish place in one supreme event per year, can be kept by athletes. For American athletes, in non-Olympic years (Operation Gold meets for able-bodied American swimmers – LCM World Championships, Pan Pacs), that’s $6,250 to $7,500 per gold medal; for the Olympics and Paralympics, that’s $37,500 per gold medal.
- Read more about Operation Gold money and NCAA rules here.
- See the most current Operation Gold payouts here.
For other countries, those payouts can be even more lucrative. We don’t know exactly how much Joseph Schooling received in his 4-year career in Texas, but it was at least $753,000 for his Olympic gold, before payouts for taxes and to his national federation.
Editor’s Note: As always, if you’re unsure, contact an NCAA compliance officer before accepting any prize money. That’s the best way to stay out of trouble.