Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith stands on the field prior to the Buckeyes’ season-opening 49-21 win over Indiana on Aug. 31, 2017 in Bloomington, Indiana. Credit: Colin Hass-Hill | Former Sports Editor

When California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Pay for Play Act into law Monday, it created a seismic shift in the landscape of economic opportunity for collegiate athletes.

From the perspective of Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, that shift will create a “wide-open” fault line wherein uneven competition and unrestricted boundaries may arise.

“It’s very difficult for us, who are practitioners in this space, to figure out, how do you regulate that?” Smith said. “How do you ensure that the unscrupulous bad actor does not enter that space and ultimately create an unlevel playing field?”

Smith is the co-chair of an NCAA committee appointed by the Board of Governors to look into the issue of players gaining rights to profit from their name, image and likeness.

The California bill would not go into effect until 2023, a delay that Smith said could allow the bill to be modified and accommodate proposed resolutions from the NCAA.

Despite acknowledging the advantage player profit would afford Ohio State due to its national platform, Smith said it would be unfair to smaller schools that may lose out on players looking to make more money by committing to a larger brand and fan base.

Smith said he would not schedule games against California teams if state-by-state player payment laws diverged.

“We can’t have a situation where we have schools and/or states with different rules for an organization that’s going to compete together,” Smith said. “Can’t happen. It’s not reality. So if that happens, then what we need is federal help to try and make sure that we create rules and regulations for all of our membership that are consistent. If that doesn’t happen, then we’re looking at a whole new model.”

Sophomore quarterback Justin Fields said he hasn’t thought much about the issue, but thinks payment is a matter of necessity for certain players.

“Some student-athletes need the money, of course. Not every student-athlete grows up in the same background,” Fields said. “Some student-athletes, they have poorer backgrounds than others.”

Head coach Ryan Day said his perspective on the matter aligns with Smith’s, but called it an “exciting” issue for student-athletes and that he is interested in seeing the outcome.

“I do definitely think that there’s opportunity out there for these guys, but at the same time, it’s not that easy,” Day said. “There’s a history of college football that has been around for a long time, and I know everybody is sensitive to not turn that off into a bad road.”

Smith said the NCAA has been slow to modernize, but he has fought to increase compensatory opportunities for student-athletes for years, including stipends for parents to attend their child’s postseason games, an increased cost-of-living payment for players under their cost of attendance and post-graduate services. 

He said more can be done for student-athletes in the future, but he could not share how the program could be regulated until the NCAA committee hands down its report later this month.

“There’s no better time to be a student-athlete than today,” Smith said. “All you gotta do is do the math. If you’re a full-ride scholarship, cost of attendance and you happen to be on Pell, do the math on a monthly basis what you’re netting. I had $10 of laundry money.”

University President Michael V. Drake said during a WOSU Radio interview on Sept. 24 that he opposes players profiting from their name, image and likeness.

“We don’t want to have things turn into professional sports,” Drake said. “There are professional sports available now. Great. We want to do what we can to maintain collegiate athletics.”

Fields grinned when asked if the Ohio State players talk about the issue among themselves, but said success on the field remains the team’s top priority.

“Of course the players want to get paid, but our focus is really not on getting paid. Our focus is on winning games, so as long as we can win games, I think everyone will be happy around here,” Fields said.