COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith on Tuesday said he is against the Fair Pay to Play Act, which was signed into law Monday and states that colleges in California cannot punish their athletes for collecting endorsement money.
“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 said, “and it’s very difficult for us — the practitioners in this space — to figure out how do you regulate it. How do you ensure that the unscrupulous bad actors do not enter that space and ultimately create an unlevel playing field?
“One of our principles is try to create rules and regulations to try and achieve fair play.”
California’s new law will not go into effect until January 2023. The NCAA is exploring options to modernize its approach to dealing with the name, image and likeness (NIL) rights of college athletes before that date.
Smith is one of two administrators leading an NCAA working group that is examining options for NIL rights. The group, which includes athletic directors, university presidents and conference commissioners from all levels of the NCAA, was assembled in May to examine those options and make recommendations about how to move forward.
Smith said he couldn’t comment on any specifics about what the working group has discussed, but he did say the group will submit its report to the NCAA board of governors on Oct. 29 in Indianapolis.
“When you think about this issue, you need to think about its complexity as it relates to the university of the membership,” Smith said.
“The NCAA is an organization that has taken a long time to try and modernize itself. Over the last five to eight years, improvements have been made in that space to become more modern.”
Politicians from several other states have recently proposed bills for laws that would be similar to California’s Fair Pay to Play Act. Some of those bills include elements beyond an athlete’s name, image and likeness rights. For example, a state senator in New York wants to create a law that would also require schools to directly give their athletes 15% of annual athletic department revenue. A state representative from Florida said he is hoping to introduce legislation that would become law by the end of the current academic year.
Smith said that he would not schedule Ohio State to play schools in states where these kinds of bills are passed. He also said there would be “no compromise” between the NCAA and states that decided to pass similar bills. He said the membership will come up with a recommendation for what it should do, but he added that he doesn’t anticipate that happening until late 2020.
Smith and others at the NCAA are concerned about navigating a landscape where each state has different rules about compensating college athletes.
“What we can’t have is situations where we have schools and/or states with different rules for an organization that’s going to compete together,” Smith said. “It can’t happen; it’s not reality. And if that happens, what we need is federal help to try to make sure we create rules and regulations for all of our memberships that are consistent. And if that doesn’t happen, then we’re looking at a whole new model.”
Smith acknowledged that Ohio State, which has an enormous alumni base and abundant resources, would have an “unbelievable competitive advantage” over a lot of other schools from a system like this, but he is still against it.
He equated it to an Ohio State player being able to use an app to reach out to the 550,000-plus OSU alums and be paid for a personalized shout-out.
“That’s the world we’d be living in,” Smith said. “I don’t want that. How do we regulate that?”
A federal law regarding the issue is currently making its way through the U.S. Congress. Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) has proposed a change to tax code that would force the NCAA to allow players to profit from their name, image and likeness or risk losing its nonprofit tax exemptions. That bill is currently in front of the Ways and Means Committee.
As a member of the working group, Smith said he couldn’t comment on whether he would be in favor of players profiting off their likeness if it was regulated and on a national scale.
Ohio State football coach Ryan Day said he stands with Smith on the fair-pay-to-play issue.
“I understand that it’s very complex, and I think that it’s an exciting issue for student-athletes,” Day said. “I’m interested to see where it goes and the talks that happen. I do definitely think that there’s opportunity out there for these guys, but at the same time, it’s not that easy. There’s a history of college football that’s been around for a long time, and I know everybody’s sensitive to not turn that off onto a bad road.”
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who is a top Heisman Trophy candidate this season, said he was in favor of some players getting paid for their likeness based on their economic need.
“I think some student-athletes need the money, of course, because not every student-athlete grows up in the same background; some student-athletes have poorer backgrounds than others,” Fields said. “I haven’t really thought about it much, but I definitely think that some should be paid, in terms of the way they’ve grown up.”
Fields said it’s a topic that players have talked about, but their focus, at least in-season, is on the games, not personal profit.
“Of course the players want to get paid, but our focus is really not on getting paid; our focus is on winning games.”
Texas Longhorns starting quarterback Sam Ehlinger said he believes the Fair Pay to Play act “is a step in the right direction” for college players, but he isn’t sure what the final product will wind up looking like.
“I think it’s a great start,” Ehlinger said. “I still believe that players should benefit off their likeness, things of that nature. … I don’t know the details of how it should be in play. And that’s not up to me. I’m not a lawmaker. I’m not going to create anything. I believe in players being able to benefit from that, but I don’t know what that looks like necessarily.”
ESPN’s Sam Khan Jr. contributed to this report.