back to news Sept. 27, 2019

ESPN's Kevin Blackistone headlines Sports and Society Initiative event on athletic compliance

Athletic compliance is a term often heard when a university is caught in an athletics violation or scandal, but what does it mean?

Generally, athletic compliance is a university’s responsibility to heed the various rules and guidelines set by the NCAA. The regulations governing athletics, however, are complex, restrictive and, in some cases, controversial.

“It’s kind of a convoluted web of rules and requirements meant to protect the student-athletes and the integrity of athletics, but they have proven over time to be open to some levels of manipulation and even corruption.” said Nicole Kraft, clinical associate professor in the School of Communication and co-director of the College of Arts and Sciences Sports and Society Initiative (SSI), which will examine the nuanced topic during its upcoming event “Complying: Examining the rules and regulations that govern student athletics” on Oct. 3.

The event includes a two-hour dialogue and debate featuring compliance officers, athletic and academic administrators, and athletes. Headlining SSI’s event is Kevin Blackistone, a national sports columnist for The Washington Post, regular panelist on the ESPN program “Around the Horn” and professor in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

Joining Blackistone on the panel of speakers are:        

  • Matt Bartlebaugh, Ohio State assistant athletic director for compliance
  • Maggie McKinley, University of Cincinnati executive senior associate director of athletics 
  • Marscilla Packer, associate district athletic director of Dayton Public Schools and former Ohio State women's basketball player
  • Kristin Ronai, Ohio High School Athletic Association director of compliance
  • Dr. B. David Ridpath, associate professor of sports management at Ohio University and author of Tainted Glory: Marshall University, The NCAA, and One Man’s Fight for Justice  
  • Ricky Volante, chief executive officer, Historical Basketball League
  • Jamie Wood, Ohio State assistant director of compliance

“We want people to understand exactly what compliance is,” Kraft said. “And we want to be able to help people see why things may go wrong and what can be done to address the inherent challenges within a system like this.”

We spoke with Blackistone to learn more about his thoughts on athletic compliance leading up to his appearance at Thursday’s event:

What led to you being a speaker at this event?

The invitation to speak came to me because of a column I had written and had been interviewed about on the podcast “Gangster Capitalism.” I talked about the recent college admissions scandal regarding a number of celebrities and other well-off people in which their sons and daughters were said to be athletes, particularly in minor sports, as a means to get preferential treatment in the college admissions process. This certainly brings up the fact that those athletic and admissions officials who allowed that to happen were doing so out of compliance with NCAA rules, because in almost all of these cases these students were not college-level athletes who could get scholarships.

What they were essentially doing was using the blood and sweat of primarily black, male athletes in the two revenue-generating sports — football and men’s basketball, sports that pay for all of those other sports to exist — in order to get their kids into schools they didn’t qualify for academically. And that is a violation of moral and ethical standards. They’re not in compliance with our morals and our ethics when it comes to higher education.

What are some pros and cons to athletic compliance? How does it aim to protect student-athletes and athletic integrity, and yet what are some of its unintended consequences and pitfalls?

Honestly, I only see cons. I’m troubled by the marriage of big-time, revenue-generating sports and the college mission statement in general. I don’t think they are compatible. So, I come from it from that standpoint. The Ohio State football program — which generates $80-100 million a year — are those players beholden to that program producing that revenue, or are they on campus to earn a college education, get a degree and go out into the working world? I don’t think those two things are compliant. So, for me, compliance has become not a pro, but completely a con.

The Sports and Society Initiative examines these kinds of issues that sit at the intersection of sports and society. Why are these topics important to grapple with and ask questions about?

Because at the end of the day, they’re exploitative. On the college campus, this is heavily a black, male issue. Black males make up no more than 3% of undergraduate enrollments on major college campuses in the country. Yet, they make up to 60% of the rosters on the football and men’s basketball teams. This means that on most campuses, if you run into a black, male undergraduate, they are there primarily to be part of the revenue machine for the university corporation as opposed to what the university is ostensibly set up for, which is to educate teens and young adults for society.

So that’s one reason why these are really important issues. You see what happened at Northwestern with athletes’ attempt to unionize and the crackdown against that, and the fact that states like Ohio and Michigan have since then passed rules in their state legislatures against allowing college athletes to unionize. There was a movement in Missouri to have scholarships taken away from college athletes who get involved in any protests. These are to me fundamental issues about freedom and fairness, so that’s why I think they’re really important issues.

What do you think the future of athletic compliance looks like, and what shifts in college athletics factor into that future?

The big thing is to be in compliance with our moral and ethical values. Is it worth it for a college football player only to receive the remuneration of tuition, room and board when they bring in so much money to the university that they turn the athletic director, football coach, basketball coach and some of the assistants into millionaires? They don’t have long-term health care. They don’t receive any type of workers compensation. To me, that’s the compliance that needs to be worked on post haste. It has nothing to do with the 400-page rulebook the NCAA has that the athletic department at Ohio State has to consult for all of its issues. It’s about fairness. It’s about wellbeing.