The ESPN and Washington Post commentator will join Ohio State compliance officials and others to discuss the rules and regulations around student athletes
On Monday, California became the first state to sign into law a provision that allows college athletes to receive endorsement deals — a measure strongly opposed by the NCAA.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany is similarly opposed to the law, which wouldn’t take effect until 2023, and Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith also recently spoke out against it. “My concern with the California bill — which is all the way wide open with monetizing your name and your likeness — is it moves slightly towards pay-for-play,” Smith recently told ESPN. "One of our principles is to try and create rules and regulations to try and achieve fair play."
But Kevin Blackistone, a Washington Post columnist and regular on ESPN’s “Around the Horn,” sees it differently. “Gene Smith runs one of the largest athletic departments in the country, when you talk about participants and the revenue it brings in. Fortunately for him and his family, he's benefited greatly financially from that arrangement,” Blackistone said recently by phone. “And I'm not just talking about Gene, but athletic directors and coaches, we know how much money they make. These folks have been turned into millionaires off the blood, sweat and labor of college athletes.”
The contentious pay-for-play issue falls under the larger umbrella of compliance in college athletics, and Nicole Kraft, director of the Sports & Society Initiative at Ohio State, said compliance isn’t well understood.
“I've had my own experiences with not understanding compliance and desperately wanting to understand better why we do what we do,” she said by phone. “There's legendary stories of the NCAA controlling what student athletes have access to from a food standpoint. The joke at one point was — and this no longer exists — that students could get a bagel, but they couldn't get cream cheese on their bagel. They could only get butter. And it's like, what? How does this even happen? … What we want to understand is, why does compliance exist? What is the goal for it? How has it evolved over time?”Current "Around the Horn" panelist power rankings: 1. Jackie MacMullan 2. Mina Kimes 3. Kevin Blackistone 4. J.A. Adande 5. Bomani Jones 6. Ramona Shelburne 7. Jemele Hill ... Unranked Bill Plaschke: Sign up for our daily newsletter
Part of the larger mission of the Sports & Society Initiative is to find answers to those tough questions and others. “We're not concerned with who wins on the field or people's physical prowess or capabilities. We're concerned with the psychological, physiological, societal intersections and how we can help people better understand why we have the opportunities and challenges that we do related to sports,” Kraft said. “We want to show people how the sausage is made and to take the mystique out of things. Because I'm a journalist, my background says that sunshine is the best disinfectant.”
One way Sports & Society examines those issues is through large-scale panel discussions, and on Thursday, Oct. 3, from 3 to 5:30 p.m. at the Ohio Union, the initiative will host a two-part panel on the topic of compliance. In the first hour, panelists such as Matt Bartlebaugh, Ohio State’s assistant athletic director of compliance, will join other school administrators and Kristin Ronai of the Ohio High School Athletic Association to explore what compliance is and how it works. In the second half, Kraft will moderate a discussion on the contentious aspects of compliance with Blackistone, Ohio University professor and author David Ridpath and Ricky Volante, CEO of the Historical Basketball League, which aims to be the first college basketball league to compensate players.
While part of the goal of compliance is to ensure equity in college athletics, Blackistone said he doesn’t believe fairness is even possible under the current system. “I'm more concerned about compliance with our ethical and moral values,” he said. “I think college athletics as it's currently set up, when you talk about the revenue-generating sports of football and men's basketball, is unethical and immoral given the amount of money that comes in and how little the laborers who produce all that revenue share in.”
Blackistone also argues that the ethical issue of compensation is inseparable from race. “This is a black male issue. Black males predominate football and basketball rosters, while at the same time, rarely are they more than 3 percent of the undergraduate enrollment at any of the campuses that they're on, which means that the primary reason that they are there is not to be part of the class of folks who are being educated. They are there to be a part of the folks who are generating revenue for the college industrial complex,” he said. “Gymnastics, track and field, crew, tennis, golf — all those other sports are made possible by the black male athletes who play those two revenue-generating sports. And, of course, by and large, [black athletes] do not play those other sports.”
While NCAA compliance claims to level the playing field, disparities abound. Blackistone pointed to wrestler Kyle Snyder, who reportedly earned at least $375,000 from 2015-18 while at Ohio State. “Would [former OSU quarterback] J.T. Barrett have been able to go play professional football in some European league or maybe in the Canadian league before school started and make some pocket change and then come back and still quarterback the Buckeyes against Northwestern? I don't think so,” he said.
Kraft welcomes the opportunity to dig into compliance's thorny issues, which are only getting thornier. “Now that we have the evolution of the student athlete model where we're looking at whether or not they can be paid for their likeness, we have even more questions about how compliance will come into play,” Kraft said. “I really want to be able to break down why this is such a huge issue of conflict and why, when we say the word ‘compliance,’ we often have a negative view of it.”