Updated: Aug 7, 2022
BY: TOMMY SLETTEN
Tick, tick, tick. Six-point-five seconds on the clock and “Golden” Gable Steveson pulled within one point of Georgia’s Geno Petrashvili in the Olympic Freestyle Heavyweight Gold Medal Match. The whistle blows. Both wrestlers come to their feet and reset. Steveson has one last chance to salvage a win.
“Fake snap, go get it, go get it, go get it,” Smith calls, even more excitedly as Steveson works his way around Petriashvili’s body, wraps his arms around, and pulls Petriashvili to his knees.
Steveson looks up at the scorer’s table, motioning for a two-point takedown, to give him the win and the Gold Medal in his first ever Olympic appearance. The referee calls it. Steveson wins 9-8 at the buzzer, and runs to celebrate with his Olympic and collegiate coach, Brandon Eggum.
Steveson, weighing in at 265 pounds, celebrated with his trademark backflip after confirming his spot as the Freestyle Olympic Gold Medalist.
The win was nothing short of remarkable - Steveson entered the tournament unseeded in his first ever Olympics, knowing he would likely have to face two former Olympic Gold Medalists if he had any hope of claiming the Gold.
But Steveson didn’t set out just to be another wrestler. He set out to be the best. And on his way, even if he wasn’t trying to: he was going to break the wheel for collegiate wrestling’s future.
It’s no secret that Steveson has high ambitions: He wasted no time in flirting with the NFL. His hometown Minnesota Vikings even promptly replying, referencing the short-lived NFL career of former Gopher wrestler, UFC Heavyweight, and WWE Superstar Brock Lesnar.
Because who wouldn’t want a larger than life Olympic Gold Medalist on the biggest stage in wrestling?
Then came Steveson’s public courting of Dana White’s WWE, further connecting Steveson and furthering his path from finishing his collegiate eligibility.
Because who wouldn’t want to see a powerful athlete facing up with the best of the best in the Octagon in brutal one-on-one combat?
To add fuel to the fire, Steveson THEN visited University of Minnesota's football practice, where he was welcomed with open arms by head coach PJ Fleck. Steveson even told the Pioneer Press that Fleck had wanted Steveson to try out for the Golden Gophers and play defensive line.
Because, who wouldn’t want to see the 265-pound blackflipping phenom compete at three-technique in one of college football’s most competitive conferences?
And then, Steveson tweeted again, showing his interest with Vince McMahon’s WWE.
Because who wouldn’t want to see Steveson wow the world with his performances in the ring as a showman?
Lastly the question remained: What was Steveson to do? And the fact remained: Steveson had an additional year of college eligibility, the year after winning the NCAA Heavyweight championship.
And Steveson couldn’t very well stay a college wrestler at Minnesota while pursuing other opportunities, could he?
Typically, a collegiate athlete loses his or her eligibility when they are no longer an amateur athlete under the NCAA’s Bylaws under Article 12. Steveson dipping his toes into the NFL or MMA would violate that: Steveson holding a contract to be a professional athlete in their league would make him no longer an amateur athlete.
But, Name, Image, and Likeness rules have changed the game. Football players have led the way with getting deals (Alabama quarterback Bryce Young even earning over one million dollars in collective NIL deals).
On September 9, 2021, Steveson signed an exclusive Name, Image and Likeness marketing deal with WWE, reportedly worth more than any deal Young has.
Under the terms of this deal, Steveson has unique flexibility to grow as an athlete and as a brand. WWE can pay for training and other services for Steveson while he retains his status as an amateur under NCAA rules. You can expect to see Steveson on the big stage with WWE as soon as possible, as long as it does not conflict with his NCAA career. Because of the WWE’s unique status as entertainers and “Stars”, Steveson will not be a professional athlete under the NCAA’s definition, like he would have had he pursued MMA or NFL opportunities.
Steveson didn’t just break the wheel for himself: He did so for the future of collegiate superstars with big brands. Brock Lesnar successfully built a brand big enough to conquer collegiate wrestling, the NFL, the WWE, and the MMA. If Lesnar walked so Steveson could run, Steveson is backflipping so the future of wrestling can run. And Steveson isn’t just backflipping on to the scene for a hot second: He, and his brand, are here to stay.
Tommy Sletten is third-year law student at Seattle University School of Law and President of the Entertainment and Sports Law Association. He can be found on Twitter @quarantommy