Josh Kendall

SEC commentary: College athletics reach tipping point

The SEC spring meetings wrapped up this week in Destin, Fla.
The SEC spring meetings wrapped up this week in Destin, Fla. USA TODAY Sports

Mike Slive getting out of college sports this year. Cerruti Brown is trying to get in.

Whether pre-professional sports tip toward Slive’s world view or Brown’s in the next 10 years will determine whether or not college athletics as we know it continues to exist.

Slive is the retiring commissioner of the SEC. His time ends Monday after a 13-year tenure during which college football became as much about high finance as higher education. The SEC brought in less than $100 million annually when Slive took over. Last week, it distributed a record $455.8 million payout.

“We can’t be ashamed that we are able to generate revenue,” Slive said.

However, he acknowledges, “Because of the ability of a couple of sports to generate revenue, there becomes this creative tension between the competition and the academic portion sometimes.”

Folks such as Brown are eager to step in and relieve that tension. Brown heads a group that is starting the Las Vegas Dealers, a touring professional team that hopes to become a landing spot for players who otherwise would spend one year in college and then jump to the NBA.

The Dealers have offered as much as $1.2 million annually to some of this year’s McDonald’s All-Americans to play for them during the 2015-2016 season, according to Imagine this year’s NCAA Final Four without Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow or Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, etc. CBS certainly doesn’t want to imagine that.

“Obviously, the winds are blowing,” Slive said. “The forces are out there.”

College sports decision-makers have been slow to react to the growing divide between the athletics department’s wealth and outsized importance and the original mission of intercollegiate athletics as part of higher eduction.

Slive said this week at the league’s spring meetings that they now must turn the entire system on its head to bolster it against those blowing winds. Gone are the days when the NCAA’s North Star was equality and fairness to teams, Slive said. That model is being replaced by one that is guided first and foremost by fairness to the athletes.

Thus, coaches who complained here about the disparity between the recently approved cost of attendance scholarship increase at Power 5 schools were essentially told, “Tough.”

“Twenty-five years from now, it would be my hope that we have intercollegiate athletics like we always have and that we provide the student-athletes with what they need as they move into another era, and we think about them more as students,” Slive said.

“It’s important for us to get our message out, which we haven’t done very well, this is about students,” Slive said.

The problem for the SEC, and to a lesser degree every Power 5 conference, is that it’s hard to talk loud enough about APR rates to be heard above “$455 MILLION, FOR PETE’S SAKE.”

It gets a lot harder when pesky people at the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics point out that SEC institutions spent an average of $14,867 per full-time enrolled student while their athletics departments spent an average of $287,828 per football player.

“What has happened is the money has gotten so huge,” said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who makes $4 million annually and is the fifth-highest paid coach in the conference.

Asked if he believes college sports eventually will be undone by its two disparate selves, Spurrier replied, “I hope not.”

“Certainly the landscape has changed, but I look at it as a great opportunity for student-athletes today,” South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner said. “Certainly we have to continue to monitor how we do things and pay close attention to how we do things.”

The challenge for Tanner and people such as Greg Sankey, who takes over for Slive as the commissioner of the SEC on Monday, is make the right decisions through the next decade to make Slive’s hope for another quarter century of survival a reality.

“In the final analysis, do we in American society believe that what we’re doing is worth saving? I believe it is,” he said. “We haven’t been very successful in getting our message out. I think many of the other forces have been more successful. We’ve got to fix that. I do believe society wants us to succeed. We just need to make sure we are doing everything within our power to make this work in the long term.”