Hoover, Ala. – No man in college athletics has a bullier pulpit than Mike Slive. He’s the commissioner of the SEC, which plays the best football, which is the sport that pays most of the bills. And say this for the commish: From that pulpit, he’s trying to make a difference.
What’s usually an annual exercise in chest-thumping — the SEC Media Days, which actually run the better part of a workweek — began with Slive addressing the elephant in the room. (And by this we don’t mean Alabama’s mascot.) He mentioned the rash of ugly offseason headlines that have emanated “from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Gulf to the Great Lakes.” He quoted NCAA president Mark Emmert as having said: “Intercollegiate athletics have lost the benefit of the doubt.”
We pause here to note that, because of what he represents, Slive risks being seen as the world’s biggest hypocrite. A team from the SEC won the 2010 BCS title using a player a lot of folks couldn’t believe was allowed to play. Even if the NCAA never unearths one shred of evidence indicating that Auburn did anything wrong, its championship will be remembered as Cam Newton’s, and Cam Newton will, rightly or wrongly, be seen as another reminder that the SEC came to be the nation’s biggest league by pushing the envelope the hardest.
Slive began his address by mentioning that “fifth consecutive BCS title” (though not Auburn by name), and then he stopped bragging and started preaching. He unveiled his four-pronged Agenda For Change, and doggone if it didn’t make great good sense. Which could well mean it has no chance of being adopted, but let’s save that discussion for another day. The four points:
• The concept of “benefits” needs to be redefined, even if means upping the value of a scholarship to reflect “the full value of [college] attendance.” (Meaning: Everybody else is getting rich off college football; should the players not reap some reward?)
• Academic rules need to be strengthened, even if it means a return to the days of the “partial qualifier.” (Meaning: A freshman could be placed on scholarship but would be ineligible to play until he proves himself academically over a full collegiate year.)
• Recruiting rules should be changed — “It’s time to press the reset button,” Slive said — to reflect reality. (Meaning: Trivial violations, like an excess of text-messaging, wouldn’t be used as stand-ins for the serious stuff.)
• The NCAA’s efforts to ratchet up enforcement must be supported. (Meaning: If you get in trouble, you cooperate. Say hello, Georgia Tech.)
Some folks will see this as a classic bit of doublespeak: The man whose conference was represented by Cam Newton — whose name Slive did not utter — is going all evangelical? Cry me another river while you’re banking that BCS money. But Slive could have said nothing more than, “Thanks for your interest in the best college football in America” and walked off the stage. He didn’t. He said what needed to be said in a way that made you think that maybe there’s hope for this smelly ol’ sport after all.
This doesn’t mean the SEC is going to get clean overnight. Where there’s competition, there will be advantages to be seized. But it’s worth noting that schools from this conference seem to have heeded Slive’s long-stated demand that cooperation with the NCAA is not optional. (Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton fired basketball coach Bruce Pearl and resigned himself ahead of the Vols’ meeting with the committee on infractions, and the NCAA, in announcing one year’s probation for LSU on Tuesday, made special mention of the zeal with which the Tigers sought to uncover the truth.)
We’ve had a whole offseason to wring our hands over the excesses of college athletics. The SEC commissioner pointed the way toward autumn by making the case that there might — might, I said — be a way upward and onward. Good for him.
By Mark Bradley