When Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith last spoke with the media two weeks ago following the Big Ten’s decision to cancel non-conference games, his outlook toward the upcoming college football season could only be described as pessimistic.
During an interview with 97.1 The Fan’s Bishop & Laurinaitis on Wednesday, however, his words were more optimistic. He confirmed Ohio State would be starting walkthrough football practices on Friday and that the Buckeyes were on track to begin fall camp on Aug. 7, acknowledging he wasn’t quite comfortable with the idea of full-fledged football practices yet but also sharing hope that Ohio State would figure out a plan to allow those practices to happen over the next two weeks.
Smith also expressed hope that the season could start as early as Sept. 5 – even though the Buckeyes weren’t originally scheduled to play a Big Ten opponent until their Sept. 26 home game against Rutgers – and said the flexibility created by having a shorter, conference-only schedule “provides us unbelievable opportunity” to potentially make a season happen, even if games have to be moved around or the season has to be shortened further.
Although it still remains as uncertain as ever whether college football will actually be played this fall, Smith and his colleagues around the Big Ten remain hard at work to try to find a way to make it happen. And one of the biggest reasons why, as he’s expressed repeatedly over the past few months, is he wants Ohio State’s athletes – including those whose next steps could be to play professionally – to have the opportunity to compete for the Buckeyes again.
“We have young people whose futures are aligned with their opportunity to play this fall, and I think we got to make sure, as best we can, we don’t overreact and we give them a chance,” Smith said Wednesday. “You can go through the names just like I could; they got a future. So how we do help them?”
While the debate wages on about whether unpaid college athletes should really be playing sports that could potentially put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, Smith said the consensus among Ohio State’s football players is clear: “Our players want to play.” To that end, Smith said it was the players’ idea to participate in the #IWantASeason campaign, for which Ohio State and its players have posted several videos encouraging people to wear masks and follow recommended health and safety guidelines to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“That was not something that we said as an administration or the coaches said we need to do that, that’s an idea that they surfaced through conversations that they wanted to do that,” Smith said. “Because they want to play. So we embraced it and then we added in all of our athletes along the way and coaches, and we’re just asking people to do the things that we need to do to allow our student-athletes – and everybody else – to have a chance to play but also just respect people and be safe.”
Smith still doesn’t know whether Ohio State will actually be able to play football this fall, saying Wednesday that “it’s a moment of uncertainty.” But he said the Big Ten athletic directors haven’t yet discussed canceling the season or moving it to spring – though they know it’s a possibility – and said he is “110 percent comfortable” with the measures Ohio State is taking to keep its athletes safe within its athletic facilities.
Keeping them safe when they’re not participating in team activities, he acknowledged, is a bigger challenge. That said, he’s pleased with how Ohio State athletes have stepped up to not only take the university’s health and safety protocols seriously themselves, but also to encourage their teammates to do the same.
“Our challenge is they gotta go back to their crib. So that’s a whole new ballgame,” Smith said. “Fortunately, our athletes have embraced policing one another. I’m really proud of our kids.”
“We have young people whose futures are aligned with their opportunity to play this fall, and I think we got to make sure, as best we can, we don’t overreact and we give them a chance.”– Gene Smith
With all the hard work Ohio State’s football players and other athletes have put into their training even in the midst of a pandemic, Smith wants them to get the opportunity to compete that they deserve. And that sentiment from Smith extends beyond the Buckeyes. Before his interview with Bishop & Laurinaitis wrapped up on Wednesday morning, Smith made sure to get in a final comment about how he believes everyone should be doing what they can to try to give all athletes – not only at Ohio State – that opportunity.
“I want that senior in high school to have their last season,” Smith said. “It just pains me to think that some athlete out there, some high school won’t have their last season, because we just can’t do simple things like wear a mask and wash our hands and physically distance and listen to our experts. It just pains me that we might take that away from some kid. I kind of get emotional about that, because to me, at the college level, you’ll survive. But high school, that’s a whole new ballgame.”
As many professional sports leagues are finally resuming competition – the MLB’s regular season begins Thursday night, while the NBA and NHL are set to resume play next week, joining leagues like the MLS and NWSL that are already competing – Smith believes sports across the United States can help lead the way for the nation to overcome the pandemic that has changed American life for the past four-plus months.
“Athletics can help galvanize our country, our communities in a storm or a crisis, and I think if we’re fortunate enough to have sports, it will help us as we try and transition back to the new next,” Smith said.