Greg Sankey is well aware of the current environment surrounding the SEC and college sports landscape. The commissioner of the most powerful collegiate conference in the nation, he’s constantly asked to weigh in and help find the answer.
There’s not a fix-all solution, though. Last week, the SEC announced a new partnership with the Big Ten that will see the formation of a joint advisory group. With the dust settled from the most recent round of conference realignment, it’s clear Sankey and his counterpart in the Big Ten, Tony Petitti, will be viewed by their peers as the leaders of the college sports enterprise.
On Wednesday night, Sankey joined the Paul Finebaum Show to explain why he felt it was time to form the group that will tackle a number of issues. The league’s eighth commissioner also spoke on a slew of other topics, including the future of the College Football Playoff.
“Both conferences have historical participation, historical linkage, historical investment,” Sankey said. “In the NCAA, we need a healthy national governing body. And to the extent we can contribute to that in any way — that explains more of what our focus will be.”
SEC, Big Ten peers looking for leadership
Walking out of a Division I Council meeting at the NCAA Convention in Phoenix last month, Sankey said he was stopped by three or four people who bluntly asked when were the SEC and Big Ten going to explain what they want in the future and what it will look like.
That sent a clear message to the commissioner that stakeholders were looking for leadership. This came after multiple times he’s been in big rooms with administrators where little progress has been made.
“We have great leaders across this country and don’t for a moment think that when I read people who say that, ‘Well, Greg Sankey is going to have the answers’ or ‘He’s going to lead us through this’ — that keeps me up at night,” the commissioner said said. “That people would think that I somehow have a set of magical answers. There aren’t magical answers to what our historic realities that have worked really well in college sports over decades.
“And now we’re being challenged in different ways. Whether it’s challenged within our own campus settings, challenged in courts, challenge in state legislatures or challenged in Congress.”
Sankey, Petitti and the NCAA seem to be facing legal issues coming from every direction. On top of the NLRB decision with Dartmouth players, a subset of athletes could be deemed employees of USC, the Pac-12 and/or the NCAA in an NLRB hearing in Los Angeles.
The NCAA and Power Five conferences could also owe thousands of athletes some $4.2 billion in retroactive NIL pay and broadcast revenue depending on the outcome of the House v. NCAA lawsuit. Another key case to watch is Johnson v. NCAA, with former Division I athletes asking that athletes be deemed employees subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act. That requires covered employees to be paid minimum wage and overtime pay, much like non-athletes at colleges who participate in work-study programs.
On top of this, NCAA president Charlier Baker has been pushing Congress to enact an NIL mandate. Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have not shown any urgency without a single piece of legislation making it to a vote in the House or Senate. Baker has also introduce his Project D1 plan that would reshape college athletics, which hasn’t been embraced by the Power 4.
Multiple states have also filed a lawsuit against the NCAA, challenging the association’s limits on athletes transferring multiple times. A preliminary injunction has been granted, allowing multi-time transfers to freely transfer without securing a waiver.
There’s arguably never been a better time for the two super conferences to come up with some solutions.
“We have a set of pressing issues upon us that merit this type of conversation knowing that we need to draw people in, widen the circle so that we can have an even healthier collegiate athletics environment as we move forward,” Sankey said. “We don’t have unilateral authority; we do have a leadership responsibility.”
Greg Sankey wants to focus on ‘big issues’
Much of the college football world has turned its attention to Tennessee in the last week after news broke the NCAA is investigating the Volunteers for multiple alleged NIL violations. The aggression resulted in attorneys general in Tennessee and Virginia filing an antitrust suit against the NCAA to lift the body’s ban on NIL in recruiting.
While the temporary restraining order was denied Tuesday, the judge noted the two states were “likely to succeed on the merits of their claim under the Sherman Act.”
“I did make a comment last week, which is I avoid comment on legal matters,” Sankey said on Wednesday. “You know, those issues are dealt with in courtrooms between attorneys. I also went further to say I really think it’s important to look given the environment we’re in on the really big issues facing college sports, not cases. And my hope would be from a policymaking standpoint that the national level we could do that. We got a lot ahead of us.”
Update on College Football Playoff
With College Football Playoff set to expand to 12 teams this upcoming season, there’s plenty to be excited about including postseason campus games. Plenty still remains up in the air, though. There is no playoff set at the moment after the 2025 season. And with revamped conference landscape of college football shifted, Sankey is a proponent of moving away from the 6+6 model.
“We have important issues around the direction of the media agreement,” he said. “We also have to think about beyond year 12 of the playoff, which is the end of the 2025 season. What does governance of the playoff look like? What does the financial model look like? What might that system look like for the future?”
Greg Sankey backs a CFP model that would include the top five ranked conference winners receiving automatic bids and the seven others receiving at-large bids. The move to that model has not been finalized.
“We’ve not been able to finalize that format. We’ll see if it’s possible moving forward,” the commissioner said Wednesday night.