This story should sound familiar. A 17-year old high school senior is a dominant athlete, so good they could play pro right now. Only there’s this college thing that’s looming next fall. And everyone’s talking about which university you’ll compete for to help win a national championship, playing for a scholarship instead of the actual cash a free market might command.
You’d assume I’m talking about men’s basketball, or maybe football. And going to college isn’t really a choice, but rather a mandate because both the NBA and the NFL require you to be at least one or two years respectively from high school before entering their professional work place.
Only we’re not talking about basketball or football. We’re not even talking about men’s sports. We’re talking about Mary Cain, the middle distance running sensation from Westchester County, New York. Cain has already competed liberally at the international level and won the US Track and Field’s indoor mile championship. She’s reset the high school record book and been coached by the legendary distance runner turned coach Alberto Salazar, who also works with US Olympians Ryan Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein. But next year, instead of running for Oregon or Texas or Villanova or one of the other distance running powers, she’ll run for Nike and plan her own racing schedule from the pro circuit instead of the NCAA calendar. According to Cain, she’s still planning on attending college next year, somewhere near Portland, where Salazar runs his Oregon Project running squad. But there’s no letter of intent, no NCAA clearinghouse, and Mary Cain can act pretty much like any other college kid working a job to pay tuition.
Cain isn’t the first runner to go pro instead of running for the alma matter. American mile record holder Alan Webb went pro after one year of running for Michigan. He now, incidentally, coaches for Portland State University on the side. And Cain and Webb’s international competition rarely runs at the university level, an anomaly of the American sports landscape. For track stars, going pro typically happens when the body wills, not upon degree completion.
Outside of the cultish running circles, this has raised nary an eyebrow. As a sport, college running is about as popular as the math club, and generates absolutely no revenue for its member institutions. In cross-country, every athlete disappears into the woods right after the race starts. So Mary Cain forfeiting her eligibility costs prospective educators absolutely nothing. Now, the same couldn’t be said for Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, freshmen basketball stars for Kansas and Duke, respectively, and the presumptive top two picks in next year’s NBA draft. They’re both competing collegiately not because they necessarily want to, but because they absolutely have to, unless they want to play in Europe or for the NBA’s under-the-radar D-league. So while Mary Cain can take money from Nike, PowerBar, and whatever meet organizer wants to pay her to run, Wiggins and Parker can’t take a free donut from an assistant coach. This is an example of whatever comes after hypocrisy.
Clearly, it’s not like Wiggins and Parker and the other stars that make this year’s freshman basketball class a generational one have it rough. They’ll play out a fantasy season of college ball while building their own emerging brand equity, a commodity they’ll monetize come next spring when their one and only college seasons end and their shoe deals begin. And barring a catastrophic injury, they’ll all amass heroic fortunes in no time, certainly much more than Mary Cain ever will running laps around a track. So if you’re looking for a story about fairness and equity, don’t look here.
This is a story about power and control. Mary Cain has been given power over her life and ambitions. That autonomy isn’t granted to college basketball and football stars, who instead cede this to college administrators, officials, and fans like me who watch college sports like an addiction. That’s not an indictment; it’s just a fact. And when Mary Cain decides to go pro right out of school, no one cares. When Johnny Mainzel signs a few autographs for pay, it’s a national crisis, because he’s too immature. And yet, in the end, in the case of most college sports, there’s no one really acting like an adult.
It’s a story that’s remarkably familiar. Only in the case of running star Mary Cain, it’s got a very different ending.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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