College tennis champ Fiona Crawley explains decision to forfeit US Open prize money

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(NEW YORK) — Fiona Crawley, the top-ranked college tennis player in the nation, forfeited $81,000 in earnings after making it to the first round of the U.S. Open, due to an NCAA rule barring college athletes from claiming prize money above a certain threshold.

Crawely, a 21-year-old senior, plays college tennis for the North Carolina Tar Heels and is currently the No. 1 women’s Division I tennis player in the NCAA. She made it the U.S. Open as a wildcard and progressed through the singles qualifying tournament. Getting to the first round entitled Crawley to an $81,000 prize, but the NCAA prohibits athletes from claiming prize money greater than $10,000 per year. Rather than taking the price, Crawley gave up the earnings to finish her college career at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“I would never take the money and never risk my eligibility, but I worked my butt of 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 a reporter after her elimination.

NIL deals refer to the ability of college athletes to profit off their “name, image and likeness” – something that also used to be prohibited by the NCAA but was permitted after the rules were changed in 2021.

Crawley spoke to ABC News’ Linsey Davis about qualifying for the U.S. Open and why she hopes future college athletes will be allowed to earn more prize money.

LINSEY DAVIS: Joining us now is the top ranked woman in all of college tennis who just made her debut at the US Open. Fiona Crawly joins us now. Fiona, thanks so much for coming on the show.

FIONA CRAWLEY: Hi, Linsey, thank you so much for having me.

DAVIS: So you fought your way through three qualifying rounds at the U.S. Open and managed to qualify for the main event. Talk to us about how it felt winning those key matches to get there.

CRAWLEY: I mean, it was one of the most incredible feelings I’ve ever had. Tennis has always been so exhilarating – winning and losing. Some of my favorite matches I’ve honestly lost. But being able to one, just get the wild card into qualies [qualifying competition] was the most extraordinary opportunity. And then being able to win that first match after being two match points down – the first ten-point tiebreak that I’ve ever played. That final qualifying match, being able to come out on top, it truly was just a dream come true, quite literally had dreams about qualifying for the U.S. Open.

DAVIS: I can imagine. And getting to the first round should have entitled you to at least $81,000. But NCAA rules prohibit athletes from claiming prize money greater than $10,000 a year. What would have happened to you if you took that prize money?

CRAWLEY: You know, I wouldn’t have been eligible to play college tennis per the NCAA rules. And that’s something that I never would have jeopardized. Rules are rules, and even though I feel like I do stand by what I said in my post-match interview, how I feel like I fought for that money and do deserve that money, it’s not something that I would risk for eligibility. I’m back in Chapel Hill, finally, after two weeks, two extraordinary weeks, chaotic weeks, and it feels incredible. And I’m finally going to my first day of class tomorrow. All of my professors had a two-hour academic advising appointment this morning, you know, working on school right now. But no, it is a little bit of an identity crisis going and competing and having that experience and not being able to take the money. I don’t think that I really realized exactly what it was until I was sitting in the purser’s office looking at all of the money.

DAVIS: You ended up playing for free professionally, just as you’re doing in college as well. But while you couldn’t take the prize money, if you got, say, a scholarship through an NIL [name, image and likeness], you could have kept the money offered in that deal. How do you reconcile that?

CRAWLEY: You know, I’m a student athlete. I’m an English and comparative literature major. I’m not a politician. I don’t know a lot about all of the rules, and I just spoke from what I felt once I qualified when they asked me how I felt about the NCAA rules with the money. I felt like I deserve that money, and so that’s what they said and that’s what I’ll stand by. I think that NIL is an incredible opportunity for athletes to advocate for themselves and use name, image, likeness in order to, you know, just get the money that I feel like – I mean, it’s a job, like let’s be real. Being a student athlete — You spend a lot of time on court in the gym and not to mention, like all of the meetings that you do and Zoom calls and, you know, we have as a team – lots of which I love, honestly – family therapy just together to get close and to build the team dynamic. You spend a lot of time and energy putting yourself into something, and it is a job.

DAVIS: And I may be being redundant really, because I think you’ve probably summed it up. But if officials at the NCAA are listening tonight, what’s your message to them?

CRAWLEY: You know, I’m done in a year, so it won’t affect me any more, but I hope that that you get an opportunity for future college players to maybe earn some of the money if you if they do want to go play professionally. I have a lot of younger friends who are going to play college, who I tell to go play college, 100%, because I think that it’s an incredible opportunity. The past three years have been the best years of my life, and I’ve developed as a person, as a student, as a tennis player. But I think it’s also a good opportunity to segue into professional tennis after. So I think it would be cool to be able to accept that you do have some winnings, some earnings from professional tennis while you’re still playing collegiate tennis.

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