SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and his colleagues know how to make gobs of money for themselves. But reforming college sports? They don’t have the foggiest idea what they’re doing.
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Whether he wants to admit it or not, Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey has cast himself as the man who will either preserve the big-tent model of college that we’ve known for generations, or the man who will light the fuse that finally implodes the NCAA.
It has come to that through years of passive-aggressive threats toward the little guys of college sports who are just trying to hang on for dear life amidst a tidal wave of changes they have little to do with.
It has come to that through incessant whining and blame-shifting about how badly others – never his mighty SEC, mind you – are screwing up the enterprise with their inaction and failure to see the future.
And finally, it has come to that through the new SEC-Big Ten “advisory group” that is being talked about around the industry as something much more significant than a few college administrators exchanging ideas.
“We have a responsibility for leadership,” Sankey said Wednesday during an appearance on the SEC Network’s “Paul Finebaum Show.”
But what will they do with that responsibility? And do the people assuming it even have the capacity or desire to truly wield it – beyond Sankey’s proclivity to tweet his reading list and the high-minded but mostly vacuous way he speaks about the very real problems facing college sports?
“There aren’t magical answers to what are historic realities that have worked really well in college sports over decades,” he told Finebaum. “And now we’re being challenged in different ways, whether it’s within our own campus settings, challenged in courts, challenged in state legislatures or challenged in Congress.
“But bringing it back to the responsibility that these two highly prominent conferences share to help introduce some new perspective, perhaps some new ideas, some new thinking or maybe even more important, help cut through the bureaucratic tape that we face so often as we try to affect change in college athletics. All of those are part of that phrasing that this is bigger than just us.”
What does that actually mean? There are thousands of people – literally – working in athletic departments from Grand Valley State to Gonzaga and everywhere in-between who would like to know.
When you talk to some of those people, reaction to the SEC-Big Ten partnership is a mix of sheer terror and hope.
On one hand, it is easy to see a future in which those two conferences just go off on their own and form some kind of new enterprise, taking the spoils for themselves and leaving everyone else holding the bag. And they can do it quite reasonably under the guise of the NCAA being too unwieldy to thread the needle between the haves and have-nots, and too slow to react to the litany of lawsuits that are challenging pretty much every facet of the current model.
Sankey practically lays the groundwork for that kind of move every time he opens his mouth, saying Wednesday he left the recent NCAA convention in Phoenix with the feeling that “we’re just not making the kind of progress (necessary) on the really important issues.”
But the other perspective you’ll hear falls along these lines: If the SEC and Big Ten don’t take the lead in figuring this out, who will? The larger NCAA membership? Congress? Good luck with that. At least a system built around the realities of the SEC and Big Ten – revenue-sharing, an athlete employment model or whatever is necessary to stabilize the ecosystem – would give everyone an idea of what’s necessary to fall in line.
Here’s the rub, though: We’re a decade into this slow-moving disaster, and still nobody in a position of power – even Sankey – is willing or able to articulate what actually needs to happen or what they want to do.
And it’s beyond time for that. It should have happened years ago. And Sankey is not blameless – far from it – in the failure to act with adequate urgency. Now we get yet another committee, only this time, there’s a longstanding personal friendship between Sankey and relatively new Big Ten commissioner Tony Pettiti at the forefront rather than the frostier relations and rivalries keeping the two leagues apart.
“Here’s an opportunity to slim down the participants, focus between two conferences with the idea we can introduce (ideas) others can consider and react to,” he told Finebaum. “We have no unilateral authority. We have a set of pressing issues upon us that merit this type of conversation.”
This is not a new notion, much less a revolutionary one. It’s just another way to repackage the same schlock they’ve fed us for years.
After the Ed O’Bannon vs. the NCAA trial in 2014 – a trial, by the way, in which Sankey went on the witness stand and argued that players shouldn’t be paid – the NCAA granted power conferences “autonomy” to make their own rules on a wide variety of issues. They did very little with it.
In the summer of 2020, the NCAA pivoted to asking Congress for help as state legislatures began passing laws to allow athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness. Sankey went to Capitol Hill and submitted written testimony that said, in part, “If universities are allowed to pay student-athletes for NIL rights, at minimum, the public will begin to perceive college athletics as a semi-professional sport, and the level of support for other student-athletes and their sports programs will decrease.” He also said, “We must protect the integrity of the college recruitment process by keeping NIL activity out of recruiting.”
Fast-forward nearly four years, and Sankey is now ripping the NCAA for pursuing an infractions case against Tennessee that falls along those very lines, telling Finebum, “I’m really one who thinks it’s important to look, given the environment we’re in, on the really big issues facing college sports, not cases.” Meanwhile, the attorney general of Tennessee is suing the NCAA so that NIL activity can be part of recruiting out in the open – the very thing Sankey once argued against.
Then in 2021, the NCAA announced the formation of the so-called “transformation committee,” whose charge was to “identify opportunities to modernize college sports and recommend forward-looking changes for consideration by the NCAA.” Sankey was made co-chairman. Its work accomplished little, and the entire endeavor has been memory-holed. It was a huge waste of time.
And now we have the next big thing: The Big Ten and SEC finally partnering up, finally ready to move college sports past its current state of paralysis. The speed bump, though, is not skepticism – it’s their own history of fumbling around on anything and everything except making gobs of money for themselves.
When it comes to expanding their conferences and negotiating huge television deals, Sankey and his colleagues have been undeniably successful. When it comes to building a sports enterprise that treats college athletes fairly, complies with federal antitrust law and acknowledges the reality that amateurism is dead, they haven’t shown that they have the foggiest idea what they’re doing.
Now the Big Ten and SEC are moving closer and closer to putting their hand on the red button. Are they going to save college sports or screw it up even more?
Given their history, best to strap that helmet tight and look out below.