Mike Slive’s words ring throughout college football’s sphere of influence. They come bolstered by the sports and financial successes of his league on his watch and his own obvious impact on wholesale changes in college football.
When Slive speaks, we listen.
When Slive seemingly calls out his own league, well, he can do that.
That’s why his statement this past week stemming from the maddening Penn State headlines carried so much thunder. See, Slive said it, and he never mentioned Penn State by name.
“Last week’s headlines remind us that we must be ever vigilant on all issues of integrity and that our primary mission is to educate and protect young people,” he said during his state-of-the-league address at SEC Media Days. “We must maintain an honest and open dialogue across all levels of university administration. There must be an effective system of checks and balances within the administrative structure to protect all who come in contact with it, especially those who cannot protect themselves.
“No one program, no one person, no matter how popular, no matter how successful, can be allowed to derail the soul of an institution.”
The message, which rings oh so true, is that something like the cover-up that is alleged to have occurred at Penn State can happen anywhere.
Most importantly to those who love SEC, it can happen here.
That’s not to say that all 14 SEC schools have a yet-undiscovered pedophile lurking in an athletics office. That’s not to say any one school employs such a sick individual.
In that regard, Penn State was unlucky to wind up with long-time assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, whose predilections appear to have become known to his bosses many years after he was hired.
A cover-up, on the other hand, can happen anywhere. Certainly, it can happen in the SEC, where most of the 14 campuses are a lot like Penn State’s in three key regards.
One, football rules. It means everything to the school’s support base and covers finances of the entire athletics department.
Two, a highly successful football coach can gain too much power over his domain, even if it’s not spelled out in his highly user-friendly contract.
Three, those who run universities rank among the most image-consumed people outside of politics — the very flaw that inspired a cover-up at Penn State, or so alleges ex-FBI chief Louis Freeh in the findings of his probe.
To borrow the parlance of weather watchers, the Penn State situation has placed the entirety of college sports — and most certainly the SEC — under a cover-up watch. The conditions exist.
Slive knows it, which is why he raised the issue at his own league’s media days without mentioning Penn State by name.
That such conditions exist on so many campuses renders absurd the many calls for the NCAA to levy the so-called “death penalty” at Penn State.
Let the fan base that doesn’t worship football and a highly successful coach throw the first stone.
Let the coach and administrator who has never swept a negative matter under the rug throw the next stone.
Let the media member who has never fanned the myth, knowingly or not, throw any remaining stones.
We need look no farther than our own state to find the most powerful coach in all of sports, so dubbed by Forbes Magazine.
We need look no farther than said coach’s campus to find his statue, and note Nick Saban’s recoil when asked about his perceived power at Alabama and Slive’s comments.
“Well, you know, it’s not true if that’s the perception,” he said. “I personally have a tremendous amount of respect for our athletic director (Mal Moore), our chancellor, Bob Witt, the honesty and integrity that they run the program.
“When we have someone who doesn’t do what they’re supposed to, whether it’s NCAA rules or something that might be criminal, those decisions get made by those people as to what is in the best interest of the university. I have always thought that was handled in the proper manner. It certainly wasn’t my decision and my decision alone.”
Let’s pause, for all who read that statement and noted Penn State parallels — whether it’s a coach who deferred to his bosses or bosses who allowed a coach too much input on such decisions.
OK, here’s the rest.
“I have tremendous faith, trust and confidence in our institution in that we will do the right things to try to promote the moral obligation that we all have to protect other folks, other people,” Saban said, “to make sure that the people in our organization are sort of assuming the responsibility that they have to represent it in a first-class way.”
There’s no evidence to suggest reason to doubt anything Saban said, but then no one doubted Joe Paterno. As much as his win-loss record, he was deified for perceptions of how he operated his program.
And what decisions do such people make when confronted with the unthinkable? Do they grow uncertain and defer to their bosses? Do their bosses defer to the real power brokers?
Protecting a school’s image is reflex at most campuses. The hope here — and in Slive’s statement — is that the Penn State case changes that.
Pair such change with long overdue justice and concern for Sandusky’s victims, and we’d have the best possible outcome.
Joe Medley is The Star sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.