HOOVER, Ala. — Does the SEC have an image problem?
I asked that question of SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey on Monday at the tail end of his Q&A session with reporters after his state of the SEC address to open Football Media Days at The Wynfrey. He responded, in so many words, that he did not think so. No surprise about that.
Of course, his remarks came after he had spent the majority of his speech highlighting the positive accomplishments of specific the student-athletes from each of the conferences 14 member institutions. In fact, he called special attention to two Georgia Bulldogs: center Brandon Kublanow, a first-generation American for his accomplishments in studying for commercial real estate and being “probably the only notary on a Division I roster;” and track star Kendell Williams, for “giving everything she had to earn the third spot on the Olympic team” at the U.S. Olympic trials on Sunday.
Sankey did allude in passing during his remarks to some “issues” that have arisen in the league this year and specifically addressed the notices of allegations two of the league’s programs are currently holding, Ole Miss in football and Missouri in basketball.
“The expectation for integrity is so high,” Sankey said. “And as we move forward together, we can have any more of these issues arise. The central thought must be, must be, (that) we never have a team return a championship trophy, never vacate any wins and never have one of our teams precluded from postseason competition because we can’t follow the NCAA’s rules r can’t meet the expectations for academic success.”
It wasn’t until the Q&A portion that the discussion turned to what might be deemed more important off-field issues that have arisen throughout the league. There is the recent sexual assault lawsuit at Tennessee, the mysterious suspension of two Florida football players amid a closely-guarded university investigation of their activities, the caught-on-tape beating of a woman by Mississippi State signee Jeffrey Simmons and the arrest of Alabama football star Cam Robinson and a teammate for possession a stolen firearm and a bag of pot, among other incidents. There are also the multiple arrests at Georgia, mainly for substance-abuse related offenses.
Sankey did not shy away when asked directly about the negative effect of such incidents on the league’s image.
“Well, the fact that there are headlines round the Southeastern Conference isn’t new,” he said. “The fact that we come to Media Days, and there are maybe more extreme headlines is not new. I was reciting over time, while you observe about athletic departments Friday news dumps, there’s an annual occurrence, as we head into Media Days, with a focus. I just talked about dozens of young people achieving great things, and if we really evaluate what is at the center of some of the recent articles, we’re talking about some issues that probably occurred in 2012 and 2013 that are just being adjudicated. We may be talking about one or two or three individuals, and their misbehavior.
“I don’t think that attaches properly to the entire conference. The body of work of this conference far outweighs those problems, yet we are attentive to those realities. We understand when the issues arise, we need to even be more attentive, be that on campus or as a collective group.”
Sankey defended the SEC’s newly-adopted policy to allow incoming freshmen who had been charged and/or convicted of violent offenses or offenses against women to enroll while not allowing in transfers who have been accused of similar transgressions.
“First, I’m always cautious … to be careful of judging one’s character on ten seconds of video,” Sankey said, referring to the Simmons’ situation. “Our working group spent a lot of time teal dealing with that. A couple of concerns that were consistently identified, which is, ‘what can you know? What can you learn if there’s something particular in one’s juvenile past, and can you access information in a consistent way?’
“When someone enrolls in college, they are generally an adult. You expect that you’ll have access to more consistent information on which to base decisions. And so we as a group said let’s go further on the transfer issue. They have been adults on the university campus, and that misbehavior is viewed as rising to a higher level of attention.”
In light of the repercussions Baylor football experienced, Sankey said the conference is actively engaging in dialogue and discussion with coaches of all sports about how they handle allegations of sexual assault.
“We have talked as a conference about expectations, reality and how legal expectations play out,” Sankey said. “And we’ll continue to do that. … The activities of the last month remind us that we need to be even more attentive.”
The reality is, these problems have existed for decades on college campuses and certainly have involved athletes before now. The difference is today, because everybody carries a video camera and multiple social media accounts in their pocket, everybody’s dirty laundry is more likely to be aired publicly than it was before.
So, yes, there would seem to be some concerns within the league office about the SEC’s image. But at least the conference is actively addressing it.