One of the most intriguing presentations at SEC Media Days this year was the one that usually gets the least attention (at least from fans) at the annual event: The opening remarks by the commissioner. In this case, that's because of new Commissioner Greg Sankey, who is taking over for Mike Slive after one of the most lucrative and successful periods in the conference's history.
Sankey didn't just ease into the job. Like Slive, he decided to take on some of the issues confronting college athletics (and society in general) head-on. He applauded the state of South Carolina for deciding to take down the Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds -- and acknowledged both the University of South Carolina's role in pushing for that change, and similar stances by Mississippi State and Ole Miss when it comes to Magnolia State's official flag. He talked about personal conduct. He talked about cost of attendance.
But where Slive was a lawyer with a reserved manner, Sankey is a straight-up technocrat. The language of corporations and government bureaucracies was woven into his remarks. Take his discussion of the conference's approach to personal conduct, the focus of one of at least two working groups he introduced in his presentation.
Consistent with my comments related to a continuing conversation on conduct issues, we will appoint a working group on conduct expectations that will engage in reviewing our student-athlete conduct issues and policies, particularly they will invest time to consider existing campus policies, national requirements and best practices in order to identify appropriate campus and conference expectations
Take out the athletics-specific words, and that remark could be heard about a review panel at any number of institutions dealing with any number of higher education issues. That's not a good or a bad thing, and Slive could certainly switch into corporatese at times, but it seems to be Sankey's first language.
Sankey also made an overt attempt to contrast himself to Slive, portraying himself as hip to what the kids are talking about these days. He has a Twitter account! He quotes Bob Dylan, but only because he couldn't think of appropriate U2 lyrics! (It would be interesting to survey the athletes at Media Days and find out how many of them know U2 as anything other than "that band that got Apple to put its music on my phone.") When asked about why he quoted Dylan while Slive used to quote Churchill and Eisenhower, Sankey said: "I'm better at Google." He also Periscoped his walk to the podium.
The commissioner also showed some political savvy that it could be easy to miss. Near the end of his remarks, and before a feel-good video that showed the human side of some SEC football players, Sankey went on what might seem like a pointless and puffy digression about the other side of college sports.
We cannot fully lead unless we successfully educate. Frankly, we can across this country, and should, expect more of ourselves in intercollegiate athletics.
My guess is that this wasn't a throwaway part of his speech. Even as a new commissioner, Sankey has to realize that the NCAA's way of doing things, particularly when it comes to football, is under increasing pressure from antitrust suits and the growing realization of the importance of money in the current system. After years of discussing realignment and contract deals and cost of attendance, Sankey is trying to subtly nudge the conversation back in the direction of amateurism and education.
All in all, not a bad debut, but the tough part of the job is ahead. How Sankey does as commissioner will have far less to do with how well he can use Periscope or quote musical artists, and more do with how well he handles the issues he spoke about.