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Fiona Crawley, UNC tennis players struggle with NCAA prize money rules

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Fiona Crawley poses for a portrait at the Chewning Tennis Center in Chapel Hill, NC on Sept. 14, 2023.

After weeks of traveling to compete at the U.S. Open and other pro-level tennis tournaments over the summer, UNC tennis star Fiona Crawley sat down to fill out her expense report. 

Because of her performance in the U.S. Open’s qualifying singles tournament, the UNC senior made it into the main draw on Aug. 29. This made her eligible for $81,500 in prize money from her first-round appearance. Additionally, Crawley and her doubles partner, junior Carson Tanguilig, earned $22,000 as a team for qualifying for the Grand Slam’s doubles tournament. But keeping all of the money would jeopardize Crawley's remaining eligibility. 

So, the No. 1 ranked collegiate women's singles player said she tallied up her tennis-related expenses – including receipts from hotels, Ubers, meals and flights – and gave everything else back. For college tennis players like Crawley who compete in pro tournaments, the process of collecting receipts and filling out expense reports is familiar.

Nate Wood, UNC's associate athletic director for NCAA compliance, said athletes participating in individual sports are allowed to receive prize money to cover necessary expenses for playing in professional tournaments. This can include flights, housing and food, as well as costs associated with equipment, tablets to review film and post-match or practice treatments.

However, athletes cannot use prize money to cover the travel and housing costs of family or trainers that they bring along with them to tournaments. Generally, the costs that are deemed necessary vary from sport to sport and depend on what the individual athlete needs to compete, which Wood said can be tricky.  

Former standout on the North Carolina men’s tennis team and world No. 76 Rinky Hijikata left UNC after the 2021 season and has since won the 2023 Australian Open doubles title. He said he ran into similar issues relating to prize money when he was in college and that he sympathizes with Crawley.

“Someone like Fiona, I think she definitely deserves some money,” he said. “She's put in a lot of hard work, and to qualify for the U.S. Open is a pretty amazing feat, especially while you're still in school.”

Hijikata said, in an individual sport like tennis, Crawley’s prize money would have gone a "long way" to help her start her pro tennis career after college. 

“My mom was asking me if I wanted to go to Lululemon or things like that [or] fly back first class,” Crawley said. “But, I don't want that. What I would want is to put the money in a safe and save it for when I graduate and actually wanna get a flight to Europe and go try to travel [to play tennis internationally] because I don't have any money for that.”

Associate head coach Tyler Thomson said that if the Tar Heel players accepted prize money that exceeded their expenses and caused them to be ruled ineligible, that period of ineligibility would begin in January – when the team portion of the tennis season begins. Crawley and Tanguilig have until Dec. 31 to turn in their expenses before a ruling would be made.

“I would never take the money and never risk my eligibility, but I worked my butt off this week and it seems unreal that there are football and basketball players making millions in NIL deals, and I can’t take the money that I worked so hard for,” Crawley told the News & Observer after falling in the first round of the U.S. Open main draw.

Past prize money disputes at UNC

Last season, another Tar Heel women's tennis player ran into prize money issues — sophomore Reese Brantmeier.

Because Brantmeier was playing in professional tournaments and winning a significant amount of prize money during her high school career, Wood said his office and Brantmeier’s family worked closely together to make sure Brantmeier met NCAA requirements.

The NCAA did not certify Brantmeier when she arrived at Chapel Hill in the fall of 2022. Wood said this is because the NCAA had not finished going through Brantmeier's expense report, but also because the NCAA took a more “narrow” definition to what it considered a necessary expense than it had in the past. This resulted in Brantmeier being ruled ineligible for the 2022 individual tennis season. 

“One of the things that I think resonates with me is Reese's mom kept reiterating that if the NCAA wants the best athletes to come to college, why aren't they allowing the best athletes to come to college?” Wood said.

He said that Brantmeier’s mom reached out to the NCAA for help prior to the fall season, but was given “bad advice.” However, UNC and the NCAA were able to resolve the issue in time for the 2023 team portion of the season. 

“There are times where the NCAA acts as a partner, and there are times where the NCAA acts as an adversary,” Wood said. “That was certainly one of the times where they weren't working with us to a solution.”

Moving forward and potential solutions

To navigate the issue of prize money that tennis players like Crawley and Tanguilig have faced, Wood said the United States Tennis Association could follow a similar route to the USA Swimming and Diving associations. 

The NCAA has an exception for the Operation Gold Grant, which allows college athletes to accept funds once a year from their respective country’s Olympic governing board, such as the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, based on their results in events like the Olympics. 

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Wood said this allowed former Stanford swimmer Katie Ledecky to accept Olympic grant money while she was still competing at the collegiate level. If the USTA adopted a similar grant program, he said it would allow college athletes to keep the money they earn in its major tennis tournaments like the U.S. Open. Notably, Wood added that the likelihood of the USTA changing their policy is low. 

While Wood said this prize money issue creates a burden for some high-profile athletes, Crawley said she never considered leaving UNC early to capitalize on financial opportunities from professional tournaments. 

"I would never give it up," she said. "I would choose college every single time."  

Gwen Peace contributed reporting to this story.

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