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'We Did a Lot Right': SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey Opens Up About Pandemic Football

MIAMI — The pandemic has, quite literally, changed Greg Sankey.

No, really, he’s a different-looking man. He’s lost 35 pounds.

The SEC commissioner has jogged at least three miles for 270 consecutive days. He’s had to buy new pants and finds himself slipping into sport coats that are now three sizes too big. On April 14, as a coping mechanism amid the burgeoning pandemic, Sankey began his daily runs—mental and physical therapy, he says. He’s jogged in snow. He’s jogged in a tropical storm. And he’s jogged on 70-degree days in January, such as Monday, when, hours before Alabama is set to kick off against Ohio State, Sankey set out for run No. 270 along Miami Beach.

From his hotel at the Ritz-Carlton on the famous South Beach strip, Sankey sat down with Sports Illustrated for an expansive interview. For a man normally closely guarded, the commissioner made pointed comments regarding Ohio State’s inclusion in the playoff, those conferences that hurriedly canceled seasons only to reverse the decision and a Knight Commission report that suggested a split of FBS football from the NCAA.

“We saw people not play games and access the College Football Playoff,” he says flatly, pausing for three seconds and later suggesting a potential minimum game requirement for playoff inclusion.

“I’m disappointed that not all FBS stuck together. I regret that,” he later said. “But I’m not the one who walked away, we’re not the ones who walked away. We all should have been more connected. The SEC didn’t walk away.”

During a stretch of late July and early August, as the most public proponent of attempting to play a season during a pandemic, he felt lonely, trapped on an island with the college sports world pressing down on him.

“There were those that I think made every effort to communicate why we shouldn’t try to play. They shamed the effort for trying,” Sankey says. “I think we did a lot right.”

On upcoming legislative issues, he strongly believes the annual 25-man cap on new enrollees for football should be adjusted to reflect the sport’s growing transfer market, and he thinks all athletes who remain on their current teams through their careers, not just seniors, should receive an extra year of eligibility.

“The fact the NCAA can’t get through that decision is a shame on us,” he says.

Toward the end of the discussion, a fan recognized Sankey in the hotel’s lobby and politely interrupted the interview.

“How are you doing?” he asked Sankey.

“Well, we’re here,” he responded.

Said the fan: “Thank you.”

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Sports Illustrated: Has playing sports during the pandemic made you look differently toward the future?

Greg Sankey: I look at leadership differently and the ability to have a group of effective advisers who help me think. I don’t have all of the answers. My ego isn’t so large that I think I’m going to get it right. I have a responsibility to lead in the right way. It informs a lot of questions and conversation. There were days I’m talking to people just trying to keep connected.

I’m asking questions and people are good enough to say, ‘What do you think about this?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, here’s why I don’t see it that way.’

I’ve had the panic on the inside while I watched others panic on the outside, and hopefully I presented a sense of calm. You realize you’re going to have to guide decisions, make decisions and you’re going to have to live with the outcomes. I never felt that as a leader I could just throw my hands up and walk away.

I felt a responsibility to provide [the athletes] an opportunity. The 2019 season was Joe Burrow’s time and LSU’s time. In 2020, I didn’t know whose time it would have been. We’re here at the national championship game and that remains to be seen [whose time it is]. But I felt a responsibility to provide the opportunity, because when time passes, it doesn’t come back around. Had we just walked away, like others did, people would have lost an opportunity.

SI: You mentioned it was sometimes lonely. Did you feel like you were on an island?

Sankey: Yes. I give a lot of credit to our presidents and chancellors and ADs. I had a lot of communication but you go through late July and early August, there wasn’t a lot of momentum to play college football. In fact, there were those that I think made every effort to communicate why we shouldn’t try to play. They shamed the effort for trying. I never said I could guarantee it.

As the leader, you’re kind of out there. Now, there were plenty of people around me. I listened. I’d sit out around the fire pit in my backyard or on my front porch just to see people and try to have some quiet time. I’d wake up in the morning with the world pressing down around me, and part of the running was to clear my mind. It would set my perspective to go attack the day.

SI: You made a ton of critical decisions this year. Do you have any regrets?

Sankey: In a way, it doesn’t matter. I had a whiteboard and I’d write a bunch of thoughts for meetings and one of the quotes is "A leader is going to have to make a decision and move on." I lean more on that. I think we did a lot right. If you look at reality, the NCAA has not conducted a championship in over a year now. We named a champion in soccer. A member of that team kicked in a couple of football games. We named a cross country champion. We named a football champion, because we tried.

There were unpredictable circumstances that were dynamic. I don’t sit here with regrets. We made the best judgements we could. I have people who say, 'Did you make the right decision?' If you go back and look at the information we had at the time of the decision, absolutely. But you’re going to be judged on outcomes and we’re here [playing the national championship] and people have to judge the outcomes. People have stayed healthy. COVID hasn’t spread in games. We had to adjust and adapt. Our staff, [SEC CFO] Mark Womack, moved the puzzle pieces around to keep all of the games alive until the last week.

I wish, regretfully... I’m disappointed that not all FBS stuck together. I regret that. But I’m not the one who walked away, we’re not the ones who walked away. We all should have been more connected. The SEC didn’t walk away.

SI: That leads into the discussion of the NCAA needing someone to keep everyone together, right? What has this year shown in regards to that?

Sankey: One of the lessons I’ve learned is, whether on an individual level or organizational level, if there were cracks in the foundation, the COVID-19 environment didn’t create those cracks but it revealed those cracks.

I think you can see that across society. You can evaluate that in college athletics—the different directions, the difficult decision-making. Every one of us in a leadership position has to look at our peer leadership. Are we bringing people together to resolve issues or are we pursuing our own agendas? And if we aren’t bringing people together, which was my intent the whole way through at the conference level, then we need to take a step back, because we’re not going to solve the problems by all running in our own directions.

At the same time, there are vast differences across Division I. I opined that I was disappointed in what I’d view as a shallow report presented by the Knight Commission. That report doesn’t resolve anything. In fact, it suggests those of us in FBS football should fully go our own way. We’re not the ones advocating for that, but I think that’s one of those fractures more apparent now as a result of what we’ve gone through and as a result of short-sighted thinking.

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It’s really an unsophisticated survey because it doesn’t give you transparency in who responded. I can look at the numbers and pretty accurately determine who responded, and it’s not those of us in the Southeastern Conference communicating that perspective. In fact, we’ve worked to keep Division I together while recognizing variances in decision making, but it raises the question for all of us, that if there’s some group and if the presidential forum wants to take up the cause that football should be administered separately, if we can find a mousetrap to run football at the college level then basketball is coming, baseball is coming, volleyball is coming.

SI: The decisions you made this year will undoubtedly be a huge part of your legacy as SEC commissioner. How will history view it?

Sankey: You asked me if I had regrets. No, I don’t regret trying, I don’t regret doing and being prepared to be open and honest with my membership. I don’t regret over-communicating.

As I looked back on the decision making process, you treat March and April like triage. Late April, you tried to figure out what’s next. And into May, there was a lot of pressure. You had states opening back up and gyms opening. We started [workouts] June 8. And then you get into July, and that’s really where the work began. I spent an entire weekend, July 10–12, on the phone with all 14 presidents. We had seen that week the Ivy League say we’re not playing. Stanford dropped 11 sports and really out of the blue, the Big Ten says conference-only.

I went to my presidents and chancellors and had phone calls. The shortest was 30 minutes and all the way up to two hours. I really found consistency of thought and a commitment to take our time. That was a really important weekend to find out where we were as a league.

We had played college football through World Wars, political unrest, social change, economic upheaval, found a way through five pandemics. We’ve always been able to find a way. Those weekends, we were able to think about, 'How can we get this done?'

SI: What impact did this year have on the future of the Playoff?

Sankey: Good question. It’s an anomalous season and it is a point of information. I don’t think it says here’s what has to change or here’s why. But it will be a point in the evaluation process. It shows you the Playoff can work. I don’t hear a lot of debate about the two best teams. They argue about the why, formats and number of games, but that's water under the bridge. I think there is a consensus that these are the two best teams. I think it does work.

SI: What did it expose about the playoff or postseason?

Sankey: I think the bowl system has to be thought about again in a new light. The commitment of teams and coaches and players and athletic programs participating in bowl games has to be discussed and understood moving forward. It does seem we’ve magnified the opt outs.

When I’ve spoken to our players, every one of them expressed an appreciation for giving them the opportunity.

SI: Do you expect in the future for teams to continue to opt out of bowl games?

Sankey: No, not teams: individuals. There were three pressures this year, two of which are not new and one which is. For some teams, the commitment to the playoff and when you don’t achieve that objective, the air goes out of the balloon so to speak. The second is NFL aspirations. I think those pressures are magnified now more than ever. People are going to protect their opportunity, and that’s different to the historic team culture we’ve all known. And then we added the pandemic. This was hard for everybody. You asked me about the emotional toll. It’s been hard for everybody, but that’s good. Doing hard things in life is what we should aspire to. We should confront challenges and overcome them. But it also takes a toll.

SI: With the success of the 10-game schedule—there was record TV viewership within the conference—how does that inform future scheduling?

Sankey: We learned, "Well, you can actually play 10 SEC games!" We also learned it’s a grind and presents challenges. We’re still learning about TV viewership, but our network experienced record viewership from what I understand because we had all conference games. Nobody got to relax. We have to think carefully about what that means competitively.

We saw people not play games and access the College Football Playoff. So I want to be careful about our [schedule] decision-making.

SI: What does it mean for the future of college football scheduling that a team playing six games advanced to the Playoff?

Sankey: We all better take a step back and figure that one out. When we had to make decisions about thresholds … very few games had been played and we had not played, so it was hard to predict. But we should have some expectations [for games played].

SI: Like a minimum requirement of games played?

Sankey: There’s a lot of negatives in our society right now, but there’s also opportunities to learn. I’d say what happened to schedules this year should be a learning opportunity. I’m not ready to predict how that manifests, but we are going to have to be attentive to those expectations.

SI: What’s next on your agenda when it comes to name, image and likeness and other legislative issues?

Sankey: From the name, image and likeness standpoint … what the NCAA proposals included did not go as far as the state’s law. The states were going to bar the institutions and conferences from enforcing more restrictive policies, so I’m not sure [the NCAA’s NIL proposal] would have accomplished anything.

We have a new Congress and a new majority and we’ll have to continue working there to determine their willingness to engage. I still believe there’s a national standard of some sort.

SI: There has been a lot of buzz about the annual 25-player cap on new enrollees. What is your view on that?

Sankey: It has to change. The 25 initial counters were in an environment of recruiting freshmen and some junior college transfers, and there’s not a lot of movement. Now we are in an environment where transfer numbers continue to increase and we have graduate transfers looking for opportunities but they’re also departing from programs at a much higher rate than a decade ago.

You have medically exempt student-athletes. One of the misunderstandings out there is that young people are removed from scholarship if they’re hurt. That doesn’t happen. The pro departures, dispute better information being provided, people are still departing at high numbers and not being drafted.

You’ve got a much higher turnover rate. If you cap the entry point with initial counters, you’re going to leave scholarships unused. That's a bad outcome.

SI: What impact do you expect next year from the seniors who will return for an extra year of eligibility?

Sankey: I doubt that it will be huge. I’ve always thought … even back to baseball, softball, track in the spring, there are people who want to stay on track with their lives. Whether it’s NFL aspirations or career opportunities, they’re going to want to move on.

I think, across the spectrum of those who have had eligibility extended, they should be exempt from financial aid. The NCAA said for one year you can exempt those in their final year if they remain. That should be across the board. Let’s not reduce future opportunities for people coming into the system because we had to manage through a pandemic. It’s going to cost a little money but we ought to be spending that money on student athlete scholarships.

The exemption is if you are a final-year student athlete and eligibility was extended and you come back to the same school, you don’t count on financial aid limits for that year. Like baseball and softball will have roster increases with returning seniors this year.

When we go to next year, that exemption doesn’t apply. You could be using your exemption, staying at the same school and doing the same thing a young person did the year before, but because you were a junior when we shut down, your aid counts. That means you have to tell them to leave or not bring someone new into the system.