'It's the Wild, Wild West.' Ohio State's Gene Smith concerned about NIL abuses, NCAA issues
Gene Smith has long urged those in charge of college sports to get ahead of the curve.
The Ohio State athletic director’s advice was usually not heeded.
Now, with the NCAA at a crossroads and college sports undergoing transformative change, Smith is again pushing to establish a framework to protect what has been effective and to safeguard against abuses he believes are occurring.
“We're in the Wild, Wild West right now,” Smith said. “We are leaderless as we move to whatever we're going to move to, and we need to move to something. Those of us who have been in it a while need to begin to speak up. We need to begin to try and galvanize people around something.”
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Mark Emmert announced last month that his much-criticized tenure as president of the NCAA will end in June 2023. Under Emmert, the organization repeatedly lost court cases trying to defend its outdated amateur model, perhaps most notably in trying to prevent the establishment of name, image and likeness (NIL) rights for student-athletes.
Smith, 66, has been an athletic director since 1986 and OSU’s since 2005. He believes it might be time for the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs to establish their own governing organization apart from the NCAA.
“The FCS has a great playoff system,” Smith said, referring to the lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision’s 24-team format. “They already do. They offer 65 scholarships. That's great. It’s just funded through the NCAA revenues, so let's not touch that.
“But the reality is the Power-5 schools and Group of 5 schools, we're not out of the storm, and we need to take control of our destiny and come up with whatever our minimum standards are for membership.”
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One standard Smith would like those schools to establish is medical benefits for players who’ve been injured but have completed eligibility. Some schools offer them, including Ohio State. Others don’t.
“That’s disheartening,” Smith said.
He would like to make offering mental health services mandatory and have universities in this top tier be required to field at least a minimum number of fully funded varsity sports.
But perhaps the biggest issue is NIL. Smith served on an NCAA NIL committee while the issue was in the courts. The expectation was that if NIL was established, federal legislation or an NCAA policy policing it would be approved. It hasn’t been.
“When we were working on that committee, there was no thought that we wouldn't have any governance whatsoever,” Smith said. “We've got no governance.”
Smith is pleased that NIL has allowed current athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness. But he is deeply worried about abuses, especially pertaining to recruiting.
The NCAA prohibits programs from explicitly offering recruits NIL packages.
“But they are,” Smith said. “There are rules on the books around boosters that are being violated, and those need to be dealt with.”
Ohio State football coach Ryan Day said Friday that the lack of clear rules and enforcement has added another layer to recruiting.
"It's a challenge because there are rules in place that right now are not being enforced, so it does create hard feelings," Day said. "That's kind of where we are right now is finding our way in those battles."
Recruiting has always been cutthroat, and pushing the envelope has always been a part of it. But with NIL allowing athletes to be compensated financially for the first time, the incentive to push it even further is bigger than ever.
"There's risk if you do nothing," Day said. "You get left behind. If you go to the other end, there's risk that you can get fired for cause for crossing the line. So finding that sweet spot is where the challenge is right now. When there aren't clear-cut rules – or rules that are being enforced – then it creates hard feelings and unrest. I think that's where we are right now.
"I think we all do much better when it's black and white. (Now) it's gray. I think the easy thing to do is throw up your hands and complain. But we're going to adapt and figure out a way to make it work for Ohio State."
Smith said a working group has prepared recommendations that he hopes are adopted as soon as Monday.
“It is a product of an NIL working group to give guidelines and remind schools of the rules that are already possible to be enforced,” Smith said. “It is our hope (NCAA) enforcement will begin to enforce the guidelines and rules.”
With the NCAA’s overall future and mission so murky, Smith said it’s crucial that those in charge of college sports move past its outdated model.
“The current rules that exist in the NCAA – the recruiting rules, the personnel limitations, the practice dates, all those types of things – we could look at and say, ‘OK, how do they fit in our world today?’ ” he said. “Some of those rules were put in place in the ‘80s. What rules do we need in place today?
“There are some people who subscribe to (the idea to) break it away totally from the NCAA, and I'm obviously willing to listen to that. But I just think there's some value in the services that are provided there. I think there's some value for primary Olympic sports and (the NCAA) basketball (tournament) to maintain that structure to some degree.”
But he said the overall governance structure can’t be one in which everyone is appeased.
“The ecosystem we serve today is different than it was in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s,” he said. “That’s not being talked about enough. It’s being talked about in pieces. It’s being talked about around lawsuits.”
Bill Rabinowitz covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @brdispatch.