Greeson: SEC commissioner Greg Sankey needs to earn the title of leader

Greeson: SEC commissioner Greg Sankey needs to earn the title of leader

July 12th, 2016 by Jay Greeson in Sports - Columns

Southeastern Conference commissioner, Greg Sankey, speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Monday, July 11, 2016, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Photo by Brynn Anderson

The SEC media days convened Monday in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover, Ala.

In a lot of ways this entire circus is the self-congratulatory apex of the self-congratulatory dog and pony show that has become college athletics.

We recognize the real problems around college football, but we ignore them because we must have the escape that is Saturday in the fall. We know the system of college athletics is cracked, but we look for ways to mend that system because that is Saturday in the fall.

But we are quick to excuse it. When real problems fall on your rival, you mock them, cold-heartedly ignoring the victims in the wake. When real problems fall on your school, you dismiss them because "that happens everywhere," cold-heartedly ignoring the victims.

Jay Greeson

Jay Greeson

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

So when SEC commissioner Greg Sankey stepped to the podium Monday, those of us hoping for a visionary path to tackling the most egregious problem before the game we love were sorely disappointed.

Yes, Sankey dismissed the detail-specific areas of conversation. Replays and rule changes and other football-specific details that should be beneath the most powerful man in the most powerful conference in college football in a time when real problems are at the gate.

That was a good thing, considering the elephant in the room — and that had nothing to do with Alabama.

Sankey talked about his emotions after the Dallas tragedy, and about Pat Summitt's death, and spending two days with 28 SEC athletes and the glorious tales from them.

He detailed the great work of a renowned LSU professor and the honorable SEC athletes hoping to represent our country in the Olympics.

He even went school by school for standout student-athletes who are equal parts Wheaties box and ABC after-school special.

Again, those examples are parts of the good things in college sports, but it only built toward arguably the biggest issue across all of college football as we speak.

In the 59 paragraphs of his opening state of the SEC — a state of the best real estate of college sports, if you will — Commissioner Sankey spent all of three paragraphs on domestic violence and sexual assault.

He uttered a few sentences about the league's "pro-active" stance about not taking transfers with history of "prior conduct." Of all the things Sankey did say in more than 25 minutes, he did not say the phrases "sexual assault" or "domestic violence."

"This past spring, you heard in Destin that we enacted a policy that, based on a transfer of student-athlete's prior conduct, may inhibit their opportunity to receive an athletic scholarship or participate in intercollegiate athletics within the Southeastern Conference," Sankey told the media mass.

And before you think it could get even more surreal, here's the very next sentence out of his mouth.

"This conference has taken a national leadership position on this issue."

Say what? Claiming a previous act or prior conduct "may" affect someone's ability to get an SEC scholarship is taking a leadership position on this pertinent and meaningful issue is staggering?

Sankey is the most powerful man of the most powerful conference in all of college sports. Saying this stance — something this wishy-washy should either be covered in Tide or texted from a 12-year-old — is a leadership position is laughable.

Sankey spent more time praising Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley and retired SEC legend Steve Spurrier than he did on arguably the most potentially damaging issue in college sports.

And if you think that's an overstatement, know this: Art Briles was every bit as big and powerful at Baylor as Nick Saban is at Alabama before the recent scandal of rampant sexual assault at Baylor, most of which allegedly happened as Briles turned a blind eye.

So Sankey, as cool as he comes across with his U2 anecdotes and bike-riding stories, trying to pedal the "leadership" position on this issue is at best short-sighted and at worst insulting.

You want leadership? How about making the SEC the first conference in the country that adopts a leaguewide rule governing all potential recruits — not just transfers, mind you — as well as current players with a uniform code for violations, past or present?

How about taking a hard stand for the victims rather than bending over 12 ways from Tuesday for the five-stars who have an elite skill that far too often makes us turn a blind eye to a sadly common flaw.

If you want leadership, how about hiring Brenda Tracy to come speak to every male sports team in the SEC. Make Mrs. Tracy — a survivor of the worst imaginable kind of college sports gang rape — the league's czar on the matter.

Tracy was gang-raped by four men involved with the Oregon State football program roughly 20 years ago. She spiraled into a darkness that far too many victims feel, and her outrage eventually landed as much on then-Oregon State coach Mike Riley as on her attackers.

She persevered, and lived, and grew and cried and accepted.

Then, about 18 years after the fact — aided in large part by an award-winning story by Oregonian columnist John Cantazaro — Riley reached out to Tracy and had her come to speak to his Nebraska football team last month.

Tracy was equal parts terrified and outraged, but because she is a true hero of suffering and a personification of overcoming, she did it. She told the room full of Cornhuskers of how she was drugged and was in and out of consciousness for more than six hours as she was sexually assaulted by four men, two of whom were Oregon State players and two of whom were recruits.

In her visit to Nebraska, Tracy begged the players to know the power they had — "They have power over the whole school and even the state," she said over the phone Monday, referring to the stars of major college football teams — and to respect it.

She also told them how she hated Riley more than her attackers, and the room fell silent.

It's that kind of realization — the one of real and true emotion — from which real leadership comes.

"I would love to come speak to the University of Tennessee," Tracy said Monday, referencing the recent Title IX lawsuit the school settled with several plaintiffs who claimed the football program cultivated a culture that allowed sexual assault.

Yes, a trip to Knoxville assuredly should be on Tracy's itinerary, but if Sankey truly wants the SEC to be in a "leadership position on the issue" then after ordering his coffee this morning he needs to call Tracy and fill her schedule with trips across the conference.

She said she will meet with the NCAA in nine days, and she was genuinely excited about the chance to make a change in this battle.

"I am very interested to speak to them, and I am very happy with the recent change in focus on the issue of sexual assault," Tracy said of her meeting in Chicago with the NCAA bigwigs later this month. "I think that it's so important everyone realizes the importance of this issue.

"These athletes need to know they are not heroes because they are called that. You have to earn the title to be called a hero."

The same can be said for the term "leader," and here's hoping the SEC and commissioner Sankey embrace that challenge sooner rather than later.

As a wise woman told me Monday, you have to earn the title of hero.

And the same can be said of the title of leader.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6343. Follow him on Twitter @jgreesontfp.

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