Smith Defends NCAA Model Amid Changes

The amateurism model of college athletics continues to take hits, but Ohio State director of athletics Gene Smith sees pending NCAA legislation as set to improve a system that isn't broken in his eyes. Smith defended OSU's benefits to student-athletes and discussed the status of reform Tuesday with

Thinking about Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who is spearheading the NU football team's attempt to unionize, Gene Smith had two separate thoughts on his efforts.

"That's what we teach our kids to do – take a stand, be a leader," the Ohio State director of athletics told in his office in the Fawcett Center on Tuesday. "After reflecting, I'm like, that's what we teach (our student-athletes) to do. Colter has an opinion, he's very articulate, he's smart. You're supposed to take a stand. Any other student on his campus can do that, so why can't be? I was proud of him from that perspective because he's a product of what we're trying to create."

"I'd hire him," Smith added with a laugh.

But when it came to his thoughts on the case that Colter (and the NU players' group, the College Athletes Players Association) and Northwestern are now arguing in front of the National Labor Relations Board, Smith had a very definitive rebuttal to the players' case.

"Do I believe our student-athletes are employees? No," Smith said. "They're not and they never should be that way. … At the end of the day, the argument that they are employees and should have the rights of employees, I just fundamentally do not agree with."

Smith said those words as college athletics is seemingly under continual attack. The Northwestern players' attempts to unionize can just be added on top of concussion legislation, the so-called O'Bannon lawsuit that challenges the NCAA's use of athletes' likenesses for commercial benefit, controversies about jersey sales and video games, bad PR over silly legislation regarding the amount of pasta a team can eat, and whatever Jay Bilas happens to be saying today.

And Smith gets it. Changes are necessary – and they are coming, something college athletics leaders definitely realize.

"(Big Ten commissioner) Jim Delany says it best," Smith said. "We're behind as an organization. We are behind. If we had the new governance structure in place two, three years ago when this stuff really started (being talked about), we probably wouldn't have had what we had because we would have dealt with a lot of those issues."

At the top of the list is essentially what college athletics leaders have made clear and fought for in recent months – autonomy for the top money makers, which will open up the ability of schools like Ohio State and its brethren to provide more for student-athletes than ever before.

The top revenue-producing schools – those in the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 – are on the way to receiving the autonomy to tailor legislation to their needs, especially in matters of student-athlete welfare. Cost-of-attendance stipends are on the way, and Smith hopes to see deregulation when it comes to such matters as what foods schools can provide to student-athletes and what benefits athletes can receive while on a road trip (for example, Smith points to the hoops OSU had to jump through to get men's basketball players tickets to a show while in New York City for the Gotham Classic in December).

The less prestigious athletics schools – the majority of the NCAA Division I membership – won't see major changes, to hear Smith tell it, but they will still be part of the revenue-producing giant that is the NCAA basketball tournaments as well as see other threatened reforms – such as increasing the size of coaching staffs or scholarship counts, things many can't afford – go by the wayside.

Nearly 70 percent of schools said they're in favor of such reforms at a January meeting to discuss NCAA governance in San Diego, leaving Smith excited for what the future holds.

"I like it," Smith said. "It's very inclusive. It's not too fast. We will get our autonomy. Everybody agrees we have to have it in certain areas, which I thought was important. It's primarily student-athlete welfare. We don't want to increase the number of scholarships. We don't want to increase the size of coaching staffs. We don't want to increase the number of contests. We don't want to change the revenue distribution formulas so all 351 schools still get their revenue share.

"We're not into that. We're in this to say, we have the resources to do more for our kids, so give us the ability to do that. That's kind of what we're looking for. I think we're going to get there. I really do."

How it all will work remains to be seen on just about every level. Will the top five conferences have veto power on issues, much like the UN's Security Council, or will the votes simply be weighted? When it comes to cost-of-attendance, will that vary by school, or will there be a hard cap on how much extra stipend a student-athlete can receive? And will the increased benefits apply to all sports, full scholarship sports, revenue-producing sports, or somewhere in between?

With much to be figured out, Smith hopes to see all Ohio State programs benefit.

"For our conferences that currently are in renegotiations for some, while others have these multimillion dollar contracts, I don't know why you can't do it for all," he said. "Somebody has to show that to me. It's a matter of priorities.

"I'm not a guy that believes in tiering programs, but you could tier it. You could say, ‘These sports are going to have access to it,' and in there you ensure that there is proportionality in regards to Title IX … but we don't operate that way. We don't think in a tiered way."

One simple fact is that benefits for student-athletes haven't matched pace with the financial windfall that has hit college sports. Television contracts and other revenue streams have exploded, lifting OSU's athletics revenues from $30.1 million in fiscal year 1993 to $87.7 million in 2003 to $142.0 million last year, a rapid rise that administrators have admittedly struggled to share with those actually on the field to this point.

With legislation like the cost-of-attendance piece of the puzzle coming into focus, expect that to change in the near future.

"Before the Big Ten Network, we didn't have all these resources," Smith said. "The Big Ten is blessed because we have three of the largest stadiums in our conference in the country and our attendance has been strong. Our people are very philanthropic in the Midwest, but we're at a point where we need to find a way now that the resources have grown to do a lot more for our kids than what we're currently doing. I would say that we're already doing one heck of a lot, and that can never be missed."

It's clear Smith does not feel that student-athletes have gotten a raw deal, especially at a place with Ohio State's financial wherewithal. The school has worked to strengthen academics plans with athletes, has instituted internship and study-abroad programs for athletes, provides services to athletes with families, and provides the best in training and equipment for its athletes.

Then, in matters of financial concerns, there's the NCAA student-athlete assistance fund, something the school encourages its athletes to use. On top of that, Smith says people need to realize that almost all of the money the NCAA makes goes back to schools.

"It all goes back," Smith said. "94 percent to the money that goes into the NCAA comes back to the colleges. The rest stays there to run the administration, but the rest comes back to the colleges. I've tried to get people to understand that the debate about what you do for your athletes is a local issue. … We do a lot for our guys and our girls. We give them a lot. You go to our tennis locker room and they change those shoes out every three weeks. That's what we're supposed to do, right?

"I stand in front of our guys and I say, ‘Look, don't ever, ever, ever be stressed for money.' If you have a financial problem – and I'm more firm on this because of our NCAA case with our six (football) guys – you ask for help. And we have kids constantly asking for help, and the majority of the time we find a way. The only way you have a problem is if you're going to Nordstrom every other day or something like that."

The goal will be to have a new governance structure approved by August, with new legislation soon to follow. As the NCAA faces mounting threats left and right, it seems, administrators like Smith realize the time is now to keep the college athletics model together in a recognizable but improved form.

"I feel confident we'll keep it together," he said. "I feel like the leadership in the NCAA and the leadership in our institutions get that we have to make some changes. One, our governance structure will change. Two, I really believe that a supermajority of the student-athletes in this country know that they benefit by participating in college sports.

"There's only a small number at the top of the pyramid that are looking to be paid, so I don't let that bother me. Most of us don't. We stay focused on what is the next step to do better, and that is changing the governance structure and putting in new legislation."

Previous stories
LINK: Smith Heads To SD To Talk NCAA Change (January)
LINK: Smith Happy To See NCAA Addressing Issues (July)
LINK: Delany Sees NCAA Changes Coming (July)

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