HOOVER, Ala. – Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey had a pearl of wisdom ready for the start of SEC Media Days:
Duct tape solves everything.
“There’s no duct tape holding the microphones in place,” Sankey said Monday morning as he took the podium to kickoff the SEC’s annual midsummer buffet of football information. “When we practiced (Sunday), it wasn’t there.”
Sankey is the master of the martini-dry quip. Monday he proved he’s the master of striking the right tone even when the world’s somber issues insist on intruding on our fun and games.
Sankey wasted little time in his opening remarks by obliquely addressing the shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, a motorist in Minnesota and five police officers in Dallas last week.
“Last Monday, we, as a nation, celebrated Independence Day,” Sankey said. “Parades, field days and fireworks provided gatherings that are special that bring people together in America.
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“One week seems like a long time ago. The sadness from the past few days remains on all of our minds, and it's appropriate to make that observation up front as it remains in our hearts as well.
“This is one of those times in our nation where we weep, we mourn, for those families and cities who have experienced loss.”
Just over 50 years ago, Jackie DeShannon sang “What the world needs now is love,” lyrics as fitting for her times as for ours.
What the world needs now as well, Sankey suggested, is a little duct tape with an SEC logo on it. Against a sad and tense backdrop of world affairs, Sankey offered a thread attached to a silver lining.
“There's a speech I found from Nelson Mandela in 2000,” Sankey said. “(It) actually has a quote about how sports unite people. Sports, he said, has the power to change the world.
“If you read through those remarks that were made at an awards dinner, at the end he says something even more important, I think: Peace is the greatest weapon mankind has to resolve even the most intractable difficulties. But to be an effective agent for peace, you have to seek not only the change the community and the world, but it's more difficult to change yourself before you seek to change others. Only those who have the courage to change themselves and know, in all communities, without exception, there are good men and good women who want to serve those communities.”
In a cynical world it’s easy to dismiss Sankey’s utopian orations as unrealistic dreaming. But if what Jose Rizal said over a century ago, that the youth is the hope of the world, Sankey may be onto something.
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“I tell you, and I mean this, the best parts of my last 13 months (as commissioner) were the times I had to spend in conversation with student-athletes,” Sankey said. “Be it in groups or individually, there are some incredible young people all across this conference, literally thousands.”
He called out some of them by name. Young people like LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White, who passed on leaving early for the NFL in part to bring himself closer to the day when he becomes the first member of his family to graduate from college. Or Mississippi State linebacker Reggie Brown, whose family in Long Beach, Mississippi, was displaced by Hurricane Katrina and who will play this fall while pursuing a master’s degree in business. Or Kentucky’s Austin MacGinnis, Alexander Montgomery and Marcus McWilson, who traveled with other UK athletes last August to help people in Ethiopia.
“They are making the most of the opportunity they have,” Sankey said. “They are the lifeblood of our conference.”
The SEC, like any other conference, is hardly without its issues. Recruiting remains a cutthroat business, as evidenced by high-profile NCAA investigations into Ole Miss football and Missouri basketball. Mississippi State’s decision to admit talented football player Jeffery Simmons onto its team despite being videoed punching a woman on the ground while trying to break up a fight is an incendiary and tone deaf example of the “win at all costs” spirit that has long pervaded college athletics.
For some, the SEC will always stand for the worst in college athletics. But don’t blame Sankey for wanting his league to aspire to the angels of our better nature.
“Our institutions are expected and will continue to handle these matters with integrity,” Sankey said of the current NCAA investigations. “We hope both of the current matters are completed in a timely manner. We understand there are issues that arise. That's why the expectation for integrity is so high. And as we move forward together, we can't have any more of those issues arise.
“The central thought must be, must be, we never have a team return a championship trophy, never vacate any wins, and never have one of our teams precluded from postseason competition because we either can't follow the NCAA's rules or can't meet the expectations for academic success.”
Maybe Sankey’s words are duct tape on the big cracks in the façade of a high-profile conference.
But sometimes duct tape works wonders.