Former MAC commissioner Rick Chryst: Pandemic is catalyst in reshaping college athletic landscape

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

The way Rick Chryst looks at college athletics these days, he sees it at the crossroads, a transformational moment made clearer, in a sense, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There already had been a movement toward amplifying the rights of student-athletes, such as adopting a one-time transfer rule for all sports, including football, became a priority, as well as the increasing the push from politicians toward a Name, Image, Likeness bill (NIL) that will allow athletes to profit off their image.

Rick Chryst

But in the months since the virus made the country, including college campuses and athletics, pause in mid-March, student-athletes have become more unified and more vocal on civil rights issues and, more recently, as students return to campus, on the topic of playing football this fall.

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Chryst was Mid-American Conference commissioner for 10 years and during that time was the chair of Division-I commissioners as well as president of the Collegiate Commissioners Association. Before that, he was an assistant commissioner in the Southwest and Atlantic Coast conferences.

Now, he is senior vice president of counsel with Farmington Hills-based Dietz Sports and Entertainment and his primary focus is Division I athletics. He remains deeply connected with college athletics, not to mention his brother is Wisconsin football coach, Paul Chryst.

He has led the room where conference decisions are made. He knows what it’s like to meet with university presidents and athletic directors as they tackle major issues. Perhaps nothing has been as big and consuming as the pandemic and the debate whether to play football, the cash cow of athletic departments, or to scrap fall sports and hope for the best after the start of 2021, but a commissioner’s role never really changes.

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren announced the postponement of fall sports two weeks ago, less than a week after he revealed a 10-game fall football schedule. OSU quarterback Justin Fields has an on-line petition, “#WeWanttoPlay” that has more than 300,000 signatures, and a number of Big Ten parents are livid and have sent letters to Warren demanding specifics why the season was canceled and want answers, like, what was the vote that forced this decision if there even was a vote.

Chryst explained there is a way seasoned commissioners, like Jim Delany who was commissioner of the Big Ten before retiring last year, work a room of university presidents and athletic directors so that it’s not about a vote, it’s about reaching consensus.

There is will be no fans and no football this year at Michigan Stadium this season as the Big Ten football season has been cancelled due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus and the Covid-19 illness.

“It’s the type of thing where it doesn't move in a linear way, and a lot of times, there’s sort of a higher-ed, I don't want to call it a false collegiality, but there's an ethic that is in the room. But it's also a really competitive room,” Chryst said. “Navigating that, whether, as a commissioner or for those that represent the institution, you can hear a lot of silence.

“I think you learn something from this, and it helps lead to better decision-making. But it's not only about having a decision, but it's getting consensus with it as best you can, and I think really that's where Jim had gotten with the conference. I don't think it's a singular thing. I remember Jim saying, ‘It's what we tried to do.’ I think it’s what every commissioner tries to do. You really try not to get to votes, you just socialize and build to a point where there's a true consensus of things.  That’s not to second-guess anything right now, because unless you're in those rooms, you're only speculating.”

For Chryst, observing the changing landscape of college athletics has been fascinating.

“The basic structure of college sports is now in the courts and in the Congress in ways unlike before,” he said. “It’s not one-issue is specific, and that’s a big dynamic. The pandemic, as with so many other parts of our society, sort of pulls the curtain back and really reveals your fundamentals, and because it’s been in the courts and in Congress, and because of the pandemic, some fundamental governance questions have been raised. You see vacuums, whether that’s leadership vacuums or structural vacuums, to me those primary dynamics, the last 30 years I’ve been around it, we’ve not had that.”

College athletes have a voice now, and it’s getting bigger. Dialogue had been there between administrators and athletes, Chryst said, but now those conversations will have to go to a new level.

“In the end, they'll still be institutional decisions, but the voices are really important,” Chryst said, “and not just to check a box.”

He is on board with a reset in college athletics, but it’s about getting on the same page. NIL, he said, means "50 different things to 50 different people” and needs to be better developed and articulated without sacrificing what separates college athletics from professional – education.

“I think there’s an opportunity to redefine not just for this generation, but for generations to come, what college sports is going to be,” Chryst said. “There's always been commercial scale to it, whether it's big radio in the 20s, or the big stadiums to the last couple decades, certainly fueled by television, the salaries. You saw with the Olympics, the whole notion of ‘amateurism’ is certainly one that has been retired for some time. So this is a chance to reset on the financial side, but really, there’s a responsibility to articulate clearly the difference between college sports and pro sports.

“We live in a world of big business, but it's also absolutely housed within higher-ed. I really see a more deregulated environment. Because I think the NCAA. I’m not meaning (president) Mark Emmert or Indianapolis per se, but sort of the regulatory scheme that exists right now, by trying to regulate everything, you end up regulating very little. And so de-regulation, and much more sports-specific tailoring, because that's already happening way before you get to college, for better or worse."

Twitter: @chengelis