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EXECUTIVES & ENTREPRENEURS CANNABIS

Sha’Carri Richardson, NIL, & the Pressure to Go Pro

The Olympics have a problem. But thanks to NIL, rising star athletes won’t have to face all the same challenges Sha’Carri Richardson has.

At the start of July, the NCAA began to dismantle the antiquated systems that prevented college athletes from making money off their name, image, and likeness. The move came after years of pressure from critics, a major decision passed down by the Supreme Court, and several NIL laws passed in individual states.

Countless amateur athletes are already cashing in without incident, further exposing how bizarre and senseless the NCAA’s business model was all along.

Simultaneously, American track star Sha’Carri Richardson was stripped of her chance to compete for the gold at the Tokyo Summer Olympics for reasons that feel similarly bizarre and senseless.

Let’s explore how all this is related.

The 21-year-old phenom has drawn comparisons to Florence Griffith-Joyner due to her incredible speed and singular style, and tore up the Olympic Trials with blazing performances in the 100 meters. However, as is standard practice for top-three finalists, Richardson was drug tested. Marijuana was found in her system. And while she was handed the shortest possible suspension, it prevents her from competing in qualifying heats for the 100 in Tokyo.

And on Tuesday, USA Track and Field squashed any hopes she had for an Olympic appearance at all when she was left off of the 4×100 relay team.

The decision came just weeks after Richardson went viral upon proclaiming herself “that girl” when she flew past her competition to secure a spot in the 100 meters despite a faulty start, solidifying herself as one of the brightest, most marketable stars of the upcoming Summer Games.

At first glance, the Richardson and NIL storylines may seem to have little to do with one another. But I find myself wondering if Richardson, who departed college at LSU in 2019 after just one year, would have been more inclined to stay in school if she had been permitted to earn sponsorship, endorsement, and licensing money, thereby facing less pressure to turn pro.

We’re not in the business of second-guessing any athlete’s decision to achieve the dream of competing professionally, and the NCAA system often makes a mockery out of higher education. But if Richardson could have taken advantage of today’s NIL environment just a couple short years ago, would this story currently playing out before us have at least a chance of having a different ending?

For years, top-tier college athletes have been forced into making the decision either to remain empty-pocketed in college or pursue professional sports and all the economic opportunities that come along with them — with no real third option. That’s a ton of strain to place on a kid that’s likely not yet old enough to order a beer at the very arenas in which they compete.

In basketball, “one-and-done” became increasingly popular in men’s NCAA basketball following David Stern and the NBA’s 2005 decision to prohibit athletes from entering the pros directly from high school. In recent years, we have seen a number of athletes skirt the NCAA. With the rise of programs like G League Ignite, and Overtime Elite, rising basketball stars can sidestep the pressure of making a life-altering, no-turning-back decision.

Although the one-and-done model doesn’t apply to every sport, Richardson and her Tigers teammate, pole vaulter, Mondo Duplantis, both left Baton Rouge to pursue a world championship at the end of the 2019 season. Given track and field’s status as a “non-revenue sport” and the limited opportunities to build a personal brand as a college runner, the decision was made and that was that.

As a freshman, Richardson set two U20 records at the NCAA Outdoor Track Championships and was the even’s highest-scoring athlete overall. Her decision to turn pro may have been fueled by a belief that she had accomplished what she had set out to do as a collegian.

Her second-place finish in the 200 meters suggests that she still had some room to grow on the track, however, and at just 19 years of age, there was perhaps more to gain from the collective support a major college team provides.

To be clear, simply being part of an amateur team doesn’t have anything to do with one’s marijuana consumption. More importantly, any “she should have stayed in school” argument totally fails to address the outdated policies that have driven this decision and others — policies that go far beyond just controlled substances.

With the recent, major changes in NCAA policy, athletes will ideally be able to make decisions about their transitions from college to professional athletics in a manner that’s more holistic and less urgent. Additionally, with the rise of the ecosystem of technology and expertise around NIL, student-athletes have access to robust support systems to help them consider all the options that are out there and the impact each stands to have on their futures.

Envisioning Richardson’s Tokyo Olympic cycle in a world in which she could have monetized NIL in college is not possible. However, one thing is for sure: She remains THAT GIRL, a brand that one day might feel much bigger than the 2020 Summer Games altogether.

With that in mind, while it is a collective loss for Team USA fans and track enthusiasts worldwide that she will be unable to take the starting blocks in Tokyo, it’s a terrific bet that the greatest episodes of her story are merely beginning to unfold.

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