Simone Biles dominated. Aly Raisman killed it. But when American gymnastics fans poured out of Rio's Olympic Arena on Tuesday, many of them were buzzing about Laurie Hernandez, the 16-year-old wunderkind from New Jersey. Though the first-time Olympian didn't post a top score during the team's gold-medal performance, "Baby Shakira" captivated the audience with her perky, effortless charm.
California native Shawn Wright, who was attending the Games with her teenage daughter, Kailey -- they wore matching USA T-shirts -- said Hernandez was the biggest surprise of the afternoon. "She just keeps getting better," she said. Kailey caught a glimpse of the young gymnast, whom she described as "adorable," before her routine. "I was like, 'Oh my god -- she winked.'"
For Hernandez, Tuesday's performance was imbued with significance that went beyond her contribution to the team's overall result. One week ago, she announced on Instagram, where she has gained more than 200,000 followers since making the team, that she had decided to give up her scholarship to the University of Florida and embark on a professional career. In doing so, Hernandez invited endorsers to assess her potential as a brand representative.
She also kicked off a new round of debate over whether young Olympians should go pro.
For swimmers, track stars and gymnasts, it's a uniquely fraught decision. Unlike football and basketball players, these athletes will never compete in a well-funded professional league; they can only hope to convert their fleeting moments in the spotlight into endorsement opportunities, most of which will dwindle in the months after the Games.
And yet, despite this complicated dynamic, there's still a stigma attached to choosing a career over competing in college. When young athletes announce that they've opted for the former, many adopt a tone of modest reluctance. Stars who choose the collegiate route -- such as swimming supernova Katie Ledecky -- are widely praised for avoiding the "distractions" of professional life.
Consider this NCAA.com story on swimmer Missy Franklin, who chose not to go pro after winning four gold medals at the 2012 Olympics, "leaving millions of dollars on the table." The feature, titled "Able to Stay Golden," paints an idyllic picture of Franklin's college experience and applauds the swimmer for having "resisted the temptations that followed her sudden emergence." The temptations! The subtext, which permeates Olympics commentary, is clear: Female athletes who forgo endorsements are as pure as their unblemished bank accounts. They are Good Girls.
This is preposterous for a number of reasons, the first of which is: There's nothing sacred or moral about playing college sports. Biles and Hernandez will never be able to compete in college gymnastics -- but they can still go to college.
"The subtext, which permeates Olympics commentary, is clear: Female athletes who forgo endorsements are as pure as their unblemished bank accounts." Mina Kimes
Nastia Liukin, the all-around champion from the 2008 Games, says she made the decision to go pro at a young age with her future education in mind. "I knew I'd want to do gymnastics at an elite level, and when I was done with my career, I'd want to focus on school," she says. "For me, the decision was easy." Liukin, 26, who is working in Rio as a commentator for NBC, graduated from NYU earlier this year.
Amateurism is often defended on the grounds that colleges can't afford to pay athletes for their labor. But that's not the issue here. Top Olympians don't want schools to pay them in excess of their scholarships; they want the opportunity to make money on the side. Sure, shooting leotard ads and energy drink commercials might occasionally pull them away from training -- but do you really think a school like UCLA, where Biles had committed before deciding to go pro last year, would turn down the chance to spotlight a celebrity student-athlete? Franklin's final swim meet as a high school student famously sold out.
The NCAA's rules on endorsements compels these women to essentially roll the dice on their careers before they turn 20 and make calculated bets on whether they can turn short-term stardom into long-term wealth.
"It's such a crapshoot," says Evan Morgenstein, a sports agent who's represented Olympians such as Dominique Dawes and Dara Torres. According to Morgenstein, unless an athlete garners copious screen time, it's likely that his or her after-tax endorsement earnings won't surpass the cost of a college education. The NCAA does allow athletes to keep their Olympics bonuses, which top out at $25,000 per medal. "There are a lot of cautionary tales of athletes who didn't become Michael Phelps," he says (Phelps opted not to compete in college, a decision that obviously worked out fine).
Going pro in gymnastics, Morgenstein adds, is especially risky because rosters are shaped at the last minute. Hernandez, for example, announced her decision before team coach Martha Karolyi decided to exclude her from the all-around competition. "You're held hostage to the decisions of others," Morgenstein says.
Timing is another variable. Biles, who won her first world championship the year after the 2012 Games, profited handsomely off of endorsements during the run-up to Rio. Hernandez didn't have that chance. When Franklin decided to remain an amateur in 2012, her college coach told Swimming World that, with a college degree, she would actually be more marketable. Four years later, this seems dubious; Franklin rescinded her amateur status just in time for Ledecky's ascent.
Liukin says that, while she doesn't regret her decision to go pro at a young age, she does believe competing in college makes it easier for elite gymnasts to shift into civilian life. "I stopped cold turkey, and that was a difficult transition," she says. It would be better, Liukin adds, if athletes didn't have to choose between making money and competing in college. "That would be the best of both worlds."
Hernandez's decision could very well pay off; with her talent and charisma, she's a marketer's dream, as well as the first U.S.-born Latina to make the team in decades. She could compete in Tokyo in four years, profiting from another Olympics cycle; she could attend college when it's all over and pursue an entirely different field. In the end, going pro was her choice. But it's one that she -- and every other Olympian -- shouldn't have to make.