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Navigating The Complexities Of NIL With Ohio State’s Gene Smith

Guest Gene Smith, Ohio State
43:20 min watch

Summary

Ohio State Senior Vice President and Athletic Director Gene Smith joins Advance Managing Partners Luke Fedlam and Courtney Altemus to dive into the challenges NIL has brought to college athletics. The trio discuss Smith’s concerns about NIL, NCAA enforcement’s ability to quickly respond to possible violations, NIL collectives and more. Smith also touches on how Ohio State is supporting student-athletes and his thoughts on FBS governance.

The conversation is indexed below for efficient viewing (click the time stamp to jump to a specific question/topic).

  • - What did you expect from NIL versus the reality of today?
  • - Aside from the recruiting inducements, what about NIL keeps you up at night?
  • - Does NCAA enforcement have the capability to govern and enforce the NIL rules?
  • - What has Ohio State done to support coaches and student-athletes on NIL?
  • - How can Ohio State do better with NIL?
  • - How can student-athletes use NIL to set themselves up after their collegiate careers?
  • - How do you see collectives play a role in NIL moving forward?
  • - What should student-athletes know about the intricacies of collectives?
  • - How would the industry change if student-athletes were labeled as employees?
  • - How would FBS football being under the umbrella of the College Football Playoff benefit the sport?

Full Transcript

Luke Fedlam: My name is Luke Fedlam, and this is Courtney Altemus, and we’re with Advance. And we’re excited to bring you some compelling content regarding the ever-changing landscape of name, image, and likeness.

We’re here today with Gene Smith, the Athletic Director for the Ohio State University. Gene, thanks for joining us today.

Gene Smith: Yeah, no problem. Appreciate it.

LF: Yeah. I know that you have been involved in leadership especially when it comes to name, image, and likeness from the beginning. When we looked at the working group that the NCAA had in 2020, you were involved with that and leading that. And then even now, looking at this subcommittee group that the NCAA has looking into NIL even further. If you take a step back, what was NIL? What did you expect it to be? What was the thought that it was going to be versus what do we see now in NIL that’s different than what you thought?

GS: Yeah, so, I was blessed to have that opportunity. I think that I was chosen because I’ve always felt that name, image, and likeness should be something that our student athletes should own and have an opportunity to monetize. So, being a coach here with Val Ackerman from the Big East during that time frame with the original group, it was a great experience.

And I think NIL is working. And the part that people weren’t talking about publicly is the piece that’s working. People forget that many of the student athletes we serve are all partial scholarships. Their equivalency is for student athletes. So, many of them leave with debt. Now they have an opportunity based upon their own talents and skills and entrepreneurship opportunities to be able to mitigate that debt.

We have a lacrosse player that’s probably making about $200,000 a year and he’s 25% scholarship, so he won’t leave in debt. And that’s huge. But those aren’t being written about.

What’s being written about is the area that we are all concerned about, the inducement space, the recruiting space. We’re different than any other organization because we recruit. We don’t draft. And so, that was always a concern of ours, and the fact that we have no governance in that space, from the NCAA or the federal government is creating a challenge for us that we need to fix. So, that’s what that small working group is focused on is trying to deal with the inducement space. But largely, NIL is working.

It’s kind of like, you know, I always tell people, and the media always writes about when the plane crashes, but they never write about all the planes that land perfectly. And there’s a lot of planes landing exceptionally well in the NIL space on our campuses.

Courtney Altemus: So true, and we see it on every campus.

GS: Yeah.

CA: And it is frustrating. I don’t need to tell you seeing the different stories in the media that are less than 2% of what’s actually going on.

GS: Right. Yeah.

CA: And some of the student athletes like your lacrosse player that are making great use of this.

GS: Yeah.

CA: And are going to leave school debt free. So, I’m glad you brought that up, because we see incredible stories everywhere.

GS: Yeah, it’s amazing. Even our full scholarship student athletes, we had one here who gave a speech to our Board of Trustees. And he talks about the single-parent home that he came from, now he’s able to provide funding to his mother to help his siblings.

CA: Amazing.

GS: But nobody is talking about that.

CA: No.

GS: And he’s a pretty good football player. So, it’s amazing.

CA: And people like that, they don’t just decide that.

GS: No.

CA: Like that single mother instilled something in him.

GS: That’s right.

CA: The coaching staff here is continuing to instill that in him, and he has his values. He’s making his decisions and it’s beautiful.

GS: It’s a lot of them.

CA: But we do have these recruiting issues and the inducements.

GS: Right.

CA: Aside from that, what about NIL keeps you up at night?

GS: Well, you know, I’ve been doing this for a while, so nothing keeps me up at night anymore.

CA: You sleep well.

GS: You know, my grandkids keep me up at night, but no. You know, because I have perspectives and I believe that many things can be fixed over time, it doesn’t keep me up at night. The reality is it’s hard for our coaches because our coaches are in the weeds. They’re dealing with it every day.

CA: Right.

GS: And as Ryan Day, my coach, talks about, he prefers a black and white rules to be in this great space. You got to give that to him. Hopefully, our Board of Directors passes the recommendations that our small working group put in place. And if so, hopefully, enforcement can move fast.

CA: Yes.

GS: That’s the piece that concerns me, is whether or not enforcement can move fast enough in order to deal with some of the things that we think are problematic in the inducement space. Because our normal process takes like a year. You can’t do that. We got to move expeditiously. The membership needs to know that things are being dealt. And so, it doesn’t keep me up at night but at the end of the day that’s what concerns me the most.

CA: Sometimes throughout the day it’s what you think about.

GS: Yeah, it’s something I think about, you know. So, this just happens.

LF: So…

CA: But…

LF: Oh, go ahead.

CA: No, I was just going to say that enforcement piece, one of the many articles I read, brought in through the weekends, a, it’s not how they’re used to operating that expeditious manner but also understaffed. So, hopefully, some of the…

GS: Right. That’s right. They’re understaffed. You know, they need some more technology. But they need to be able to prioritize this particular activity.

CA: Yeah.

GS: With all due respect to all the other cases that they’re handling, I mean, they’re important, at the end of the day, this is a line in the sand. And for our industry, this requires urgency and a high priority and they need to move.

CA: Yeah.

GS: And so, hopefully, they do.

LF: Is the NCAA capable of moving on that?

GS: Yes.

LF: And I mean, we know that there’s been cheating in college sports for years.

GS: Right.

LF: Name, image, and likeness did not create this.

GS: No.

LF: All of a sudden now people want to do things differently. So, when you think about that enforcement and the need then, does the NCAA have the staff? Is it going to be able to govern and enforce these rules on NIL?

GS: Yeah, you know, they have to make it a priority. They have to say that these things we’ve been working on, we’re going to move a little bit slower but we’re going to put effort into this particular space. Historically, the answer to your question is no. You know, that behavior has never been there. And that’s a real tough one because they have, whatever cases they’re working on, those involve other schools. And so, those schools don’t want their stuff slowed down. So, it’s a real quagmire, which frankly, leads to the reality that we need to change our structure.

CA: Yeah.

GS: We’re trying to serve too many beasts here, 352 schools. It’s been our problem for years. And so, we need to get to a point where we decentralize some things, get smaller, for at least the schools that need to have its own structure. Then we can move more expeditiously in that space.

CA: What are some of the things here at Ohio State that you’ve done to support your coaches and student athletes with name, image, and likeness?

GS: Yeah, being on the committee gave me a little bit of opportunity to start education early. And that’s the biggest thing, education. Hooking up with Anomaly at the very beginning because we’ve known Luke for 99,000 years, because he’s always worked with our student athletes. Then we shifted it to talking to them about the things they needed to focus on within NIL. We’ve always had financial literacy, but now it became more important to them. Talking to them about taxes. We had a meeting with our football team and the parents on Zoom, just talking about taxes because none of them do their own taxes.

CA: I know.

GS: They’re all dependent.

LF: That’s right.

GS: And so, talking to those who are Pell eligible student athletes and what does that mean if you earn x amount of money. How does that impact your social economic status and your Pell? Just the education part—contract management, breach of contract. So all those things were about education. Educating our coaches but also educating our athletes in that space, and sometimes the parents.

CA: Absolutely.

GS: So, absolutely doing a lot of.

CA: That’s so smart. Because at the end of the day that’s the foundation, right?

GS: That’s it.

CA: And it’s been fun to watch these student athletes asking more questions.

GS: It is. Right.

CA: I can tell they’re paying attention because they started to ask questions and they’re starting to think of ideas. How to get ahead in keeping better record for taxes and coming back to the decision-making process.

LF: Yes.

GS: Yeah, that’s right.

CA: And it’s exciting.

GS: Negotiating.

CA: Oh, wow.

GS: In what pay, “Why are you paying 20%?”

LF: Yes.

CA: Right.

GS: And then, but, I never forget a meeting when I brought up that, you know, paying 20% and the guys started talking, “Oh, you shouldn’t pay 20%.” It’s like, “Oh, we should be paying 8%.” And I’m just standing there listening to them go at it.

CA: Yes.

GS: Can you imagine what the locker rooms look like? It’s beautiful.

LF: Correct.

GS: That’s the beauty of it.

CA: Yes.

GS: They’re learning from each other. We had a guy, his first deal he bought Tesla stock. You know, most people think they’re going to go buy all these video games. No.

CA: No.

GS: No.

CA: He’s thinking.

GS: Yeah, he’s really smart.

CA: Thinking ahead, setting goals.

GS: So, it’s really, I don’t know. It’s a beauty to it that in April we’d get as many questions around taxes.

CA: Right.

GS: I always tell them, don’t worry about the NCAA. Worry about the IRS.

CA: Exactly. They will find you.

LF: Yeah.

GS: Yeah, they will find you.

CA: Yeah.

LF: Yeah.

GS: They’ll find you. That’s right.

CA: Yeah.

GS: I look at NIL as education. And for me, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

LF: Ohio State has been a leader in this NIL space in terms of student athlete engagement and involvement, in terms of innovation and creativity and engaging in NIL. What are some areas that you think Ohio State can do better at when it comes to NIL and just navigating this new environment?

GS: Yeah, you know, it’s funny. I’m glad you asked that question because just recently, you know, where the student athlete who’s going to do clinics, and I asked one of my colleagues, “He’s got a great plan, great pro forma, but does he really know how to teach?” It just hit me because I know the student athlete and I’m thinking about his personality and I’m like, “Can he really teach?” And so, these things pop up and you say, “Well, you know what, maybe we ought to go down that path and talk to him about that.” Again, maybe we ought to for – we have a number of student athletes that are doing clinics and things of that nature, so maybe we ought to have something around that embedded in our education, around, if you’re going to teach a nine-year-old, this is how you do it.

And so, there’s things that emerge as a result of things being organic or student athletes having plans that we’ve said to ourselves, “We got to pay attention. It’s like everything else we do, we got to go to where the student athlete is. And then the NIL space, we got to do that too. Because we’re learning what we need to do for them.” So, every now and then, my team will have an IDL and one of the things, working with Learfield, our marketing and media rights partners, is how do we make sure that we embed our student athletes in their process where appropriate. The NFT space, there’s so many different things in that space that we are paying attention to now that we never really did. And so, having conversations with our corporate partners. There’s always things that you can do better, and it’s based upon learning, listening to the athletes and responding.

CA: I love, love, love to hear you say that.

GS: Thank you.

CA: Because we see it every day. We’re immersed in these college athletic departments. We have sessions with coaches and staff and then with student athletes, and we learn what they need and we adjust.

GS: Yes.

CA: I mean, as adults coming at them saying, “Oh, this is what you need,” like there is our foundation that we know, they need to learn about taxes.

GS: Right.

CA: They need to learn about negotiating. But there are new issues coming up every single day.

GS: All the time.

CA: And we have the responsibility, I think, to teach them. So I love to hear that. I love to hear that.

GS: We listen to them and then teach them.

CA: Yeah.

GS: It’s no question. Yeah.

CA: Absolutely.

LF: And it’s funny you bring up camps and clinics because so many of the student athletes that we talked to across the country especially in Olympics Sports, that’s where they see themselves making an impact in NIL.

GS: It’s true.

LF: Whether you’re talking softball, gymnastics, lacrosse, across the board, they know that they can go back to their hometown.

GS: That’s it, right there.

LF: And if they partner with some of their teammates –

GS: Yes.

LF: Now they can go to multiple hometowns and have a whole camp series that they do in their off seasons.

GS: Yes, exactly right. We had one that, one athlete whose mother works in the school, so she was able to get the gym for free.

CA: Awesome.

GS: So, mitigated expenditure on her, from her portfolio, but, yeah, that’s really cool. And what you said is also really cool because, that’s what we’ve talked about a lot is go back to your hometown.

CA: Yes.

GS: You may not have a persona where your NIL is in Columbus where it should be. But back home, by your crib –

LF: That’s right, you’re the star.

GS: You go back home.

CA: Ohio State student athlete.

GS: Yeah, then two weeks, in Tacoma Washington, whatever it is, because you still got juice there. So, yeah, it’s so many different things. Our Olympic sport athletes are killing it. They’re really killing it.

CA: I love it.

GS: Yeah.

CA: And I think, too, to your point, going to your hometown, it re-establishes a level of personal confidence, some esteem, some – it could be somebody who’s not getting any playing time at an elite academic and athletic institution as Ohio state.

GS: Oh, no question.

CA: They go back to their hometown. It helps them also apply their talents in other places.

GS: There you go, and it builds your resume. And by the way, you probably won’t go pro. It means you’re probably going back home.

CA: Right.

GS: So, if you’re doing it the right way, you’re going to go back to something that you just didn’t go away for college for four years and didn’t go back. You’re still engaged. So, there’s so many different benefits to these opportunities that I just love it for our kids.

CA: It’s fantastic.

GS: Yeah.

LF: But that’s to your point, that’s where I think that there is a second level of NIL.

GS: Yes.

LF: There’s the need for education.

GS: Right.

LF: But there’s also the need for, how do you leverage as a student athlete NIL to your benefit?

GS: Right.

LF: It isn’t always just about, how do you make the most money?

GS: No, no.

LF: But how do you use NIL to establish relationships?

GS: Right.

LF: So, if you’re going to go work with a company to do something, get to know their staff, get to know for people possible shadowing experience or internships.

GS: There you go.

LF: Possible job down the road. That’s where I feel like there’s continued education around having those professional conversations and setting yourself up for success after you leave school.

GS: There’s no question about it. Years ago, internships were so critical to have to put in place in. We have a mandatory thing here where as a sophomore you have to have a resume.

CA: Right.

GS: Most of our kids never worked before.

CA: Right.

LF: Right.

GS: Never.

CA: Right.

GS: And so, it started years ago. You go to have a resume, and that starts the conversation to really look at what you’ve done and what you need to do, and what you ultimately really want to do. Is that degree in social work what you really want? Are you just doing that because you looked at it and sounded cool? So, we’d really challenge them in their sophomore year to begin to think about building a resume. NIL fits into that, a hundred percent. We’ve had internship programs for a long time. So, we’ve been working with our student athletes to make sure that they have a career when they leave.

CA: Yeah.

GS: We just had 194 of them graduate, May 8, and 93% of them already had jobs before they walked across the stage or they’ve gone pro or gone to grad school, done. My goal is to get to 95%. So, the critical thing with NIL is that embeddedness. How do you make sure you use it to help you get to where you want to go? It’s not just about money. How do you use it to get to where you ultimately want to go and do NIL with companies or organizations that you might want to work with or for in the future? So, we talk to them about all that stuff all the time. And some of our athletes can do that. Some can’t. So, we try and work with them on that.

CA: And it’s so critical for all the reasons you just said but also Luke and I have seen it for decades working with professional athletes. When that time is over that they are competing.

GS: Yes.

CA: If they haven’t practiced where else to apply their talents, they don’t know.

GS: That’s right.

CA: Everybody always says to them, “You better be ready for your next chapter. Be ready.” But when you’re the elite athlete and you’ve got to focus on what you’re doing every day so you don’t lose your position, that’s really hard. But getting practice in thinking about, ‘What’s important to me? What am I good at? Who do I connect with?’ It’s invaluable. Because they all have that time where that identity of the athlete goes away and they’ve got to figure it out.

GS: That’s right. That’s why we have to begin in a college space to teach them that before they leave. So, when you go pro, you understand you do have downtime. Don’t tell me that, you know, 24/7 or every day of the year you’re working on your pro game. You’re not. You got downtime. So, take that downtime and invest in yourself beyond your sport in so many, you know, Junior Bridgeman didn’t do what he did by just every day, when he was playing, just focused on that.

LF: That’s it, right.

GS: He was reading up. So, you have time to better yourself in some other area, whatever your area of interest is. And so, we try and teach our students, if they get that opportunity to go pro, just don’t focus a hundred percent of your time on your sport. Your coaches don’t.

CA: Right.

GS: So, at the end of the day you have to figure out what’s next. Whether it be from injury it ends or just, you know, 14 or 15 years later and you’re done. You got to transition. Make it easy for yourself to transition into that. So, those conversations are so important to have when they’re in college.

CA: Yes.

GS: Sometimes you gotta deal with the parents, too.

CA: Yes.

LF: Indeed.

CA: Yes, you do. Yes, you do.

GS: Yeah, yeah. You go to do that.

CA: Yes.

LF: So, I want to talk about NIL collectives for a minute.

GS: Yeah.

LF: This is a phrase, a term that didn’t exist a year ago.

GS: Right.

LF: And now, NIL collectives are literally at the center of this name, image, and likeness conversation. We talked about inducements and some of the challenges there. Some people talk about the weaponizing of NIL and the collectives help do that. What are your thoughts just on collectives? More specifically, how do you see collectives playing a role in NIL as we go forward?

GS: Yeah, it’s so funny because there’s different collectives all over the place. And they’re formed differently and they have different investment opportunities for people. I think collectives are fine done the right way for current student athletes, for current student athletes, not recruiting. So, if you could look at collectives in their focus on their current student athletes based upon how they’re structured, I think they’re fine. It’s a form for people who want to invest in something. They help their student athletes. I’m good with that.

I’m not so sure they fit the definition of a 501C3 the way some of them are structured. So, I worry about that and what it would look like for them moving forward. I personally see, if you had a collective that was an LLC and you had 10 corporations that were part of your collective, you can do some beautiful things with current student athletes.

CA: Yes.

GS: I don’t see a problem with that. So, I know of some corporations across the country with some schools that I’ve read about and what they’re doing. I think that’s cool unless they enter the inducement space.

CA: Right, right.

GS: Or the recruiting space. So, I think collectives are maybe getting a little bit of bad wrap because some of them were in that recruiting space. But if they just focused on the current student athletes, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. We have 40 donors who want to create an entity to help student athletes with their NIL, it doesn’t bother me. Now, that’s because we’re at Ohio State. If I’m at a smaller school, that’s problematic. Because at the end of the day, that becomes a parasite and you’re cannibalizing maybe donations to your institution.

CA: Yes.

GS: Or if you’re in a small community and you don’t have a lot of businesses, say, corporations, you might be cannibalizing sponsorship dollars. So, we’re kind of spoiled a little bit because we are Ohio State. We’re in a large, growing environment. So, for me I can – I think collectives might be getting a bad wrap and rightfully so in some space if they’re in that inducement space.

CA: Yes. I agree too and the other thing that’s happening is we have the exact same conversation on every single campus. It doesn’t matter if it’s a powerful Power Five institution or a Mid Major because of how they’re talked about. Every coach thinks they’re missing out on a recruit because they don’t have enough or they don’t have –

GS: A collective.

CA: Right. And I know over time we’ll see that settle and they’ll be calmer –

GS: All set.

CA: And able to focus more on coaching. But right now, I mean, I get the panic. They get paid to win. They think somebody else has an advantage through recruiting.

GS: Right.

CA: Of course, they’re going to be anxious and panicked.

GS: Right.

CA: But hopefully soon we’ll –

GS: I think what you said was critical. I think it’s going to over time, it’s going to level out. Because I really think that relationships with your local businesses/corporations are going to benefit you more than having them be a part of a collective.

CA: Yes.

GS: But because the collectives emerge so fast in some space, to your point, which is excellent, everybody felt like they had to have one.

CA: Right.

GS: As opposed to just working relationships locally. You’ll be fine. And teaching your student athletes how to do and introduce themselves to that. Or many of our athletes have representation now.

CA: Yes.

GS: They may have agents or a brand manager or whatever.

CA: Yes.

GS: Put your brand manager to work. If I was a student athlete here, I’d have a list of the corporations that I want my representative to go call. And it would be everywhere from Jeni’s Ice Creams to whatever. Because we had two student athletes men’s basketball who went and stood last summer at a local restaurant when it opened for like 90 minutes and all they did was sign autographs, for 90 minutes. And they walked away with a check.

CA: Beautiful.

GS: Take me back to college. I mean, I’d pick the restaurants. I’d go. And, I mean, I’d stand there forever. So, anyway, I don’t know. I think collectives are getting a little bit of bad wrap. I think there’s a place for them if you want them. But I really think we could do without them if we had, over time, if we’re going to get to that.

CA: Yeah.

LF: I think it’s important when it comes to collectives because you hit it on the head, they’re not all created equally.

GS: That’s right. They’re so different.

LF: They’re not set up the same way. Right. They’re so different in how they operate, how they’re managed. I agree. I think there’s some significant concerns of the 501C3 variety that they will be challenging, that I think ultimately state attorney generals will have to deal with. The IRS will deal with it. And we’ll see how that plays out. But the other thing I think that’s important is that student athletes have to understand too, collectives are still, even though they have ties to an institution, they are still an independent organization that’s having them do deals.

And so, when we talk about our education and we talk to student athletes, sometimes there’s this comfort level, like, “Oh, well, that’s coming through the collective,” well, no, no, you still have to understand, what are you giving up?

GS: Right.

LF: What are they asking you to sign; understanding the same thing about money and taxes and your decision-making.

GS: Nothing changes.

LF: Nothing changes.

CA: Right.

GS: Yeah.

LF: Helping them understand that is important.

GS: It’s so critical. It’s so critical. And so, it’s so funny, everything comes back to education.

CA: Yes.

GS: At the end of the day, which is the beautiful part of it. It really is. I remember years ago when I came. I was getting all these phone calls and for emails it was big, and they were talking – I was getting them from apartment complexes. Because the apartment owners, “So and so moved out and they damaged the room.” And then the athletes would be complaining because they didn’t get their money back. And 99.9% of the time they never read a lease.

CA: Right.

GS: You know, you move out of the dorm. You go get an apartment. You get these five pages and you just sign.

CA: Right.

GS: And you never get your money back because you punched a hole in the wall.

CA: Right.

GS: So, teaching, education, so then I made it mandatory for all the coaches to work with their athletes before they moved off-campus to make sure they read their lease but also make sure, and from a lateral literacy point of view, make sure that they understood a budget. Because you just don’t pay the rent.

CA: Right.

LF: That’s right.

GS: You pay more than the rent.

CA: Right.

GS: And so, every coach, it was mandatory. But you gotta teach them.

CA: You do.

GS: That’s the beautiful part, the education is.

CA: Yes.

GS: I don’t know. I just kind of get jacked up about the NIL, the electives, all that stuff, it comes back to teaching.

CA: Yeah, and I think both Luke and I in different spaces saw the need from working with pro athletes and seeing where there were gaps.

GS: Yeah.

CA: And coming back long before NIL and saying, “Okay, let’s take a step back here and we’re not college professors but we do see the real world and we do have this expertise.” And before NIL, I can’t tell you how many programs we were called in to work with because the student athletes were ineligible, because of the parking ticket bills that they hadn’t paid, so we’re budgeting around, “Make it sure you’re paying your parking tickets”.

GS: That’s right. That’s true.

CA: “Pay your rent.”

GS: That’s true.

CA: So, it has been, I mean, kudos to you for seeing it well before NIL to use that opportunity of them making mistakes to teach.

GS: To teach.

CA: There, they’re going to know.

GS: That’s really what’s beautiful about Altemus and Anomaly coming together. You guys have bookoo experiences in different places. So, there’s places that are not like us. You know, there’s places where a young athletic director is working in a small environment where they don’t have the staff, but they could hire you. They could hire you to come in, and for a period of time, teach this, whatever this is.

CA: Yes.

GS: When I was at Eastern Michigan university, that’s where I made my bread and butter because I didn’t have a lot of staff.

CA: Right.

GS: But I would look for companies like yours and say, “Okay, I can do something with you guys for a six-month period and pay you. And then you’re gone. You’re off my payroll.”

CA: Right.

GS: But you execute something for me, and actually will leave a model for me. Because at the end of the day, what you do, now I can do.

CA: Right.

GS: And so, I think people need to pay attention to what you guys are bringing to the table and bring them in, bring you in, to help them. See what they don’t see. So, that was a great experience.

CA: Appreciate that.

GS: Yeah, it’s true. True.

LF: So, let’s pivot for a second.

GS: Yeah.

LF: We’ve talked a lot about NIL. Another significant change, we’re in this period of incredible change in college sports.

GS: Right.

LF: And if you were to look at the future, one of the things that’s bubbling up is this idea of student athletes as employees. So, if we look at the National Labor Relations Board, their general counsel had their memo. Her memo stated that certain players at institutions should be concerned as employees, mostly talking football and men’s and women’s basketball.

GS: Right.

LF: We’ve seen some cases come up through the NLRB now. We’ve got some federal lawsuits that are dealing with this idea of categorizing student athletes as employees. And some states are even looking at it within their legislature. What kind of change would that mean to the college sports landscape for student athletes to be labeled as employees?

GS: Crazy. It’s crazy. You know, I’ve always tried to say that I want to be curious about things and be open to change and help me see what I don’t see. And I struggle with this one. I can’t get there. Because when you say they’re employees, I’m old school. You know, I came from the IBM world. Everything is quantifiable and there’s goals and objectives, and you hold people accountable. And if they don’t get things done, you fire them. It’s that simple.

So now you’re telling me that we – keep in mind, we recruit. We don’t draft and we don’t hire employees. Now you’re saying to me that if I take freshman and they’re not getting things done, I’m going to fire them when they’re a sophomore. I mean, here’s your goals and objectives. This is what you hold, you’re accountable to. You got to go to class. Don’t miss class. At the end of the day you better be at workouts and your body has got to change by this. And so, I’m changing my whole conversation.

And if, by the time you’re a sophomore you got, you know, two academic misconduct charges, and you were late to class x number of times and you’re fired. So, I have a problem with this concept of going to employee. I am one who has always believed and fought for opportunities that create more benefits to student athletes and I believe in that, and I believe there’s more that we can still do. But taking them to an employee status, I just don’t support that.

And, frankly, if we go to that model, then I can see where you’re tethered to education. It’s a requirement, part of their contract. But in all likelihood, there’ll be certain sports that would be outside the institution. And those sports would have affiliation agreements with the institution, and they wouldn’t be truly part of the institution. That’s the only way it works, in my view. So, it could work. I can see it working but it would be different.

But we just wouldn’t be educating kids right now if there’s this whole new ball game. We spend time trying to understand what their issues are. With their mental health issues today, can you imagine if you’re an employee, I don’t care about what your sexuality is or your girlfriend just dumped you or your boyfriend just dumped you or you’re having a bad practice, get over it. They’re just going back to old school. That’s going back to old school.

CA: Yeah.

GS: “I don’t care about your personal problem. Now, you’re an employee. Get it done.”

CA: Yes.

GS: And so, that’s, I don’t know. I just, I get kind of jacked up on that part. They don’t understand what we truly do for young people in this space. They don’t. I mean, I can go back and talk about so many kids where the lightbulb came on, where I literally, we see, “Oh, my god, they finally got it.” You take them to an employee level, I don’t care about that.

CA: And that’s why you were attracted to the business in the first place.

GS: First place, exactly right.

CA: I say that all the time. People who work in college athletics don’t go to college athletics for the money.

GS: No, no.

CA: It’s about helping young men and women develop, and helping them develop for the rest of their life.

GS: I would have stayed at IBM and aspired to be a CEO of IBM as opposed to going in this space where I have an opportunity to change lives.

CA: Right.

GS: And so, because this changed my life, you know, it gave me an opportunity to be where I’m blessed to be today. Because Joe Yonto and Mike Decicco reached down and saved me from myself when I was in school. And so it’s, I don’t know. I struggle with the employee thing. I get it about providing them more benefits. Because at the end of the day, that’s it. It drives me nuts, if I hear of a school and I’ll go toe to toe on the athletic records, if a student athlete gets injured in their junior year or senior year and they leave, and that injury is not healed, and they still have to continue to rehab, go to physical therapy, you want to pay for that. You want to pay for that. There’s a lot of schools that don’t do that and it drives me nuts. And that’s what the politicians hear. But no one is doing that in the Big Ten. No one is doing that in the SEC. No one is doing that in the Pac-12. So at that level at school, they’re doing it right. Or tell them, a student athlete who leaves early in their junior year and they’re 30-credit short and they want to come back to school, pay for it.

CA: Exactly.

GS: Degree completion, pay for it.

CA: Yeah.

GS: So, when I hear schools don’t do that, it drives me nuts. But that’s what politicians hear. It’s happening. So, they want to create these things. But anyway, I get all jacked up about that stuff. I shouldn’t talk so much.

CA: No, I love to hear it because it is so important. I’m thinking of all of Carlos Boozer’s Instagram post yesterday walking in graduation.

GS: It’s unbelievable.

CA: Yeah.

GS: It’s unbelievable. Yeah, we had Jordan Fuller graduating.

CA: I love it.

LF: Yeah.

GS: I just love to see Carlos Snow, I mean, he graduated after he went through his life issues and addiction and all that came in. He came back, and got his degree. I mean, it’s just, and we paid for it.

CA: Yeah. And the next generation is watching closely, so closely.

GS: Yes.

CA: And if they’re watching them go try what they try and ultimately when they have time, when they’re ready, to come back and complete a degree, it’s a beautiful lesson.

GS: It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. Now, that’s, I don’t know. I struggle with the employee concept. I’m always open to see what I don’t see and I just don’t get that one. I understand why they are saying it but I don’t think they understand what we do. I really don’t.

You know, I was in Michigan for 10 years and at Easter Michigan, and I watched what the unions did to Ford, to the car industry. That’s a perfect example. And so, at the end of the day I just think it’s a model that would be wrong for what we do.

LF: So, last question.

GS: Yeah.

LF: Get you out of here on this one. I felt like a real reporter when I said that.

GS: That’s all right. No, that’s all right.

CA: You did, Luke. Luke Fedlam.

LF: So, thinking about that, this idea of categorizing student athletes as employees because of the desire for certain benefits, it’s very similar to what we see where it becomes this one-size-fits-all across all of college sports.

GS: Right.

LF: And I know all of college sports is not created equally. You’ve talked recently about the college football playoff taking over and being responsible for FBS as it relates to football. And when you think about that, and we think about name, image, and likeness, and now also transfer portal where student athletes can sit out for a year without having to – or they’ll have to sit out now for a year and can go and transfer schools, it almost creates this somewhat of a quasi-free agency. What do you see if the college football playoff were to take over responsibility? What do you see in the future? What could that look like for college sports and how would that benefit the college sports environment today.

GS: The FBS are those schools that offer 85 scholarships or more. There’s a clear distinction with the investment that those schools make and everybody else. And so, to me, when you can take 130 schools as opposed to 352; 130 schools who have the same mission, the same level of investment, you can create your own rules. You put in place your recruiting rules, your personnel rules, and your calendar for what football looks like. You don’t touch anything else. The basketball tournament stays the same. The Olympic Sport competition stays the same. The NCA still manages your academics and the eligibility center. But for those schools, we can create our own rules and have our own commissioner, executive director, whoever is called. You got the playoff thing looming. Those schools participate in the playoffs anyway so that becomes a part of the structure, whether it’s 8, 12, or 16. And so, to me, it’s a model that allows us to decentralize intercollegiate athletics with those schools who are making investment in football. And we can address it because, really, at the end of the day that’s what the noise is.

All due respect, I love synchronized swimming. I really do. But nobody is writing about it. Nobody is talking about it. All the politicians aren’t doing this for synchronized swimming. And I love that sport. But at the end of the day, we need to separate ourselves and create our own structure and it allows us to move faster, too, move expeditiously. If that structure was in place right now with NIL, we would already have fixed the inducement part. We would have dealt with it because we could have our own enforcement inside or we could third-party it. We could actually say, “Okay, this is the highest priority, go fix it.” So, I don’t know. I just think that the vision one has been too big for so long. Years ago, when I was fighting, not just me, some of my colleagues, we’re fighting for cost of attendance to change our scholarship model. It took us years to get there. Because all the schools voted against it. With all due respect to those schools, they’re not us.

CA: It’s not the same.

GS: They’re not writing about those schools. The politicians aren’t talking about those schools. So, I don’t know. I just kind of feel like we need to recognize that we’re different. Set up a structure to pay tribute to that difference because of the diversity that we’re trying to serve underneath the NCAA tent of Division I, it doesn’t work. It works for the basketball tournament. Because you can have a St. Peters involved. And it works for baseball and track or tennis.

CA: Right.

GS: But it doesn’t work for football. Let’s just face the music and change it. So, I don’t know. Probably, one of the few thinks that way. Well, we’ll push it.

CA: I don’t know. When I watched the Knight Commission made a pretty darn good argument for it.

GS: Yeah. I a hundred percent agree with their revenue distribution part. But philosophically, you’re right, that structurally, conceptually, they’re on the same page. And I think you’re right. But I don’t know, I just, I think we got to push that and hopefully our presidents get it. We’re still under presidential control. Hopefully, they get it and move in that direction. We have a transformation committee that’s looking at things that we could do. But structure needs to be in place in order to move those things into it. So, I don’t know. I get a little crazy about that too.

LF: So, a lot of changes coming to college sports.

GS: Yeah.

LF: Gene Smith, thank you so much for just joining and spending some time with us today.

GS: No, thank you. Well, thank you. I appreciate it and good luck to both of you. I’m just – what you guys are doing in this space is phenomenal.

CA: Thank you.

GS: You’re helping a lot of different schools. So, hopefully, people will engage you.

CA: Thank you.

 

 

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