HOOVER, Ala. — Between quoting Churchill, Shakespeare, Muhammad Ali and I believe all but three of the Seven Dwarfs in his State of the Empire address Tuesday, SEC commissioner Mike Slive made a reference to Penn State.
He did it as only a smooth, well-practiced executive could. He didn’t mention the school by name. Or the deviate in prison. Or the legendary late head coach who so clearly either closed his eyes or looked away.
“Last week’s headlines remind us that we must be ever vigilant on all issues of integrity, and that our primary mission is to educate and protect young people,” Slive said at the opening of SEC Media Days. “There must be an effective system of checks and balances within the administrative structure to protect all who come in contact with it, especially those who cannot protect themselves. No one program, no one person, no matter how popular, no matter how successful, can be allowed to derail the soul of an institution.”
If Slive were running for political office, there would’ve be a pause immediately following, “… the soul of an institution,” while his supporters broke into thunderous applause.
He struck the perfect chord. He should.
Penn State is a cautionary tale for major college athletics. It shouldn’t escape Slive that the same warped power structure that existed in State College, which allowed Jerry Sandusky to continue with his sick and perverted ways, could be mirrored in Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, Auburn, Gainesville, Athens, Knoxville or on any campus where the image and success of the college football team rank above everything else in importance.
The SEC has been no stranger to scandal for several decades. Illegal recruiting. Academic fraud. A hot, young, blond, female assistant getting a $20,000 bonus from her sugar daddy, the football coach in Arkansas who clearly operated without oversight. (Just to use a recent example.).
The SEC is stuffed with monster football programs and powerful coaches who are treated as deities. One man’s Joe Paterno is another man’s Nick Saban.
That’s not to pick on Saban. It’s just the reality of the situation.
Slive is a smart man. He surely anticipated he might be asked a follow-up question (or two) about his Penn State reference and the potential parallels with SEC schools. He was prepared.
“The point I was making is, we all manage intercollegiate athletics as part of the mission of the institution and that what happened [at Penn State] is something that in a horrific way reminds us that athletics has a proper place in the context of higher education,” Slive said later off stage. “We need to be ever vigilant to make sure we keep that perspective.”
He declined to offer an opinion on how the NCAA should deal with Penn State. (”I wouldn’t presume to put myself in their place.”)
He declined to say how he would react if an SEC school was involved in a similar situation. (”Those of you who know me know I never deal in hypotheticals.”)
But when asked if he was concerned that the potential enabling of criminal behavior and a long-term cover-up could be replicated in his conference, Slive bit.
“Without characterizing it, one thing that I appreciate in our league is the active involvement of our presidents and chancellors, their work with the league, the fact that they meet with each other, face to face,” he said. “All of us — presidents, commissioners, athletic directors, everybody involved — understand the importance of making sure that everything we do athletically is in the context of the institution.”
He acknowledged the ripple effect the Penn State story has caused, adding: “I don’t think there’s anybody in intercollegiate athletics who isn’t sensitive to these matters.”
These are high times in the SEC. The conference has won the past six BCS championships. There are no major NCAA sanctions in football to speak of (South Carolina self-penalized for players getting reduced hotel rates.). Member schools received $20.1 million each in conference revenue sharing in the past fiscal year — and it’s going to go up.
Penn State is sitting on a large treasure chest. But civil suits will cut into revenue, and there’s a chance the school will lose federal funding. It’s what happens when a university loses sight of its mission, something the SEC’s monster programs can’t ignore.
By Jeff Schultz
SEC Media Days