At the 2021 SEC Football Media Days last month, I settled into my second-row seat on the first day of the annual conference and prepared for the first in-person interviews that I had taken part of since March of 2020.
I was overjoyed to return to a somewhat normal atmosphere, and the bright future furled forth in front of me and my media colleagues like a red carpet leading us to the start of a new athletics year.
As is tradition, conference commissioner Greg Sankey kicked off the week with a speech. This year, he highlighted the changing landscape of college athletics — a similar speech to one he gave during his first speech as commissioner back in 2015.
To start things off, he quoted lyrics from "The Times They Are A-Changin'" by Bob Dylan.
"Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen," Sankey recited. "Keep your eyes wide open, the chance won't come again. And don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin, and there's no telling who that it's naming, because the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a changin'."
Sankey then addressed why he had brought up the lyrics six years after he first recited them to the media.
"If you wonder if I pick songs that have some meaning, I think I got that one right, maybe a little early because the times are changing."
Throughout the next four days of head football coaches and athletes of the conference stood at that same podium, a common theme was continually brought up: everyone's gratitude for Sankey and the work that he put into being commissioner of the conference.
Over the last 18 months, Sankey has had to handle a plethora of issues that no one could have properly predicted. At the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sankey addressed the media in person as the conference shut down the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament mere hours before the second day of competition was to begin.
"It was five years ago at this moment that I walked into a meeting with our presidents and chancellors that I was told I was going to be the eighth commissioner of the Southeastern Conference," Sankey said last March. "We have had a lot that has happened in those fives years, a lot that has been great and a lot that has been difficult. But I have not had a situation as difficult and emotional as this one. A recommendation to cancel the remainder of our men's basketball tournament was a moment that I had to stop myself and actually recompose myself."
Not too long after as college sports came to a screeching halt, Sankey was faced with another issue. This time, it was that of racial inequality.
Acting quickly on his feet, Sankey formed the SEC Council on Racial Equity and Social Justice, a league-wide body consisting of a diverse group of student-athletes, administrators, coaches and SEC staff.
"By listening, asking, and seeking, we will begin to make a difference," Sankey said in a statement in June of 2020. "But we must reach beyond our comfortable places and engage the uncomfortable reality.
"The change we lead must be real and must realize that all are created equal, which in our case must echo across our stadiums, our arenas, our campuses, our communities, our states and our nation."
In addition to handling the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice with dignity and poise, Sankey also led the conference to sign a deal with the Walt Disney Company beginning in 2024 that will give ABC and ESPN exclusive rights to broadcast SEC athletic events through 2033. The deal is worth approximately $3 billion.
On July 1, the landscape of college athletics was changed once again with the introduction of Name, Image and Likeness policies across the country. Once again, Sankey was guiding the conference far before the NIL policies became law.
Sankey used his speech at SEC Media Days to call on congress to create federal legislation regarding NIL.
"The NCAA's temporary rules governing name, image, and likeness were a necessary reality, but those interim policies are no substitute for a uniform national standard," Sankey said. "While we all will benefit from a standard that supports the interests of student-athletes while preventing exploitative practices with policies that can be understood and administered by universities and colleges at every level, while also providing prospective student-athletes with clarity as they are recruited nationally across state lines and have to understand the different name, image, and likeness laws.
"Because state laws are either inconsistent or nonexistent, the NCAA rules can no longer resolve key issues. We need a federal solution."
And today, less than a week ago the conference announced the formal addition of Texas and Oklahoma, two juggernaut college athletics programs that will do nothing but hoist the SEC to an even higher level of competition.
To put it lightly, Sankey has been busy over the last 18 months, and his road is far from over.
On Thursday morning, the SEC announced that Sankey's contract had been extended through at least 2026. His previous contract was set to expire in 2023.
"I am grateful for the support of the SEC's presidents and chancellors, and for the continuing opportunity to serve our universities while supporting the student-athletes of the Southeastern Conference," Sankey said in a statement. "We are in the midst of a time of change for college athletics, and I look forward to working with the SEC's campus leaders to identify a path forward that will sustain the incredible success of our Conference and provide opportunities for young people to grow academically and challenge themselves athletically."
There it is again. The word 'change'.
Sankey was right on the money in 2015 when he first recited the lyrics of Dylan. He was more than correct to remind the media and the general public again of those same lyrics in 2021. College sports and the world have both changed dramatically over the last six years, and the conference is fortunate to have had Sankey at the helm directing it.
As NIL continues to grow and change in unpredictable ways and as Texas and Oklahoma join the conference in the coming years, Sankey's new contract ensures that he will be in Birmingham to continue to adapt the conference as the landscape of college athletics continues to evolve.
As Sankey stepped off of the stage to make room for the first head coach at SEC Media Days, I turned to one of my colleagues and said "It's amazing to think of how differently things could have gone last year without Sankey at the helm."
Well done, Greg Sankey. You've earned it.
At the 2021 SEC Football Media Days last month, I settled into my second-row seat on the first day of the annual conference and prepared for the first in-person interviews that I had taken part of since March of 2020. Subscribe for full article
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