Wimbledon had just ended but the return volley of Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey belonged on the grass courts.
Does the SEC have an image problem, Sankey was asked?
Firm grip, follow through.
“Well, the fact there are headlines around the Southeastern Conference isn’t new,” he said. “The fact that we come to Media Days, and there maybe are a few more headlines is not new … We’re talking about some issues that probably occurred in 2012 and 2013 that are just being adjudicated. We may be talking about one or two or three individuals.”
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Uh, no. Off-field troubles have found the conference over the past few months, and Sankey undoubtedly was stung by a headline over Monday’s USA Today story that welcomed Media Days with “SEC success can’t mask backslide on behavior, NCAA rules.”
Recent embarrassments were cited, like former Mississippi offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil on NFL Draft night admitting he took money from a coach while in college and Missouri’s basketball team removing itself from postseason play last year because of violations that occurred during the Frank Haith era.
More troubling, in the SEC and throughout college sports, involves domestic violence and sexual assault.
Mississippi State top recruit Jeffrey Simmons was caught on video punching a woman and was given a one-game suspension by the school. Last week, Tennessee settled a Title IX lawsuit for $2.48 million with eight women who alleged they were punched or sexually assaulted by athletes from 2013 to 2015.
This isn’t an SEC issue. Sexual assault news involving college athletes filled news cycles over the past few months. Baylor’s botched response to reports of rape and sexual assault cost the school its president, athletic director and football coach Art Briles.
A judge made news for the lenient sentencing of a Stanford swimmer who received six months jail time for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
These heinous acts have formed college sports ugly and depressing theme heading into the new school year, which is why it’s heartening to find someone like Vanderbilt junior linebacker Oren Burks.
Probably more than any player interviewed on Monday or will be over the next three days, Burks spent less time talking about his game or his team’s prospects and more about the world around him, one that’s been frightening and contentious.
Burks is invested as a student-citizen as much as a student-athlete in a couple of ways. He’s the co-founder and activities coordinator for REVAMP, which stands for Revitalizing and Empowering Vanderbilt’s African American Male Population. Burks called it a “safe space to talk about issues, be a strength for each other and dispel negative stereotypes.”
Sadly, there’s been too much to discuss recently with the shooting deaths of black males by police in Louisiana and Minnesota and the shooting deaths of five white policemen in Dallas by a black gunman last week.
“It’s terrible to see innocent people die, whether it’s cops or African-Americans,” Burks said. “We need to value all life.”
Burks also works with Project Safe Center for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response, which allows students who have been a victim of sexual assault to seek support and services. Among his responsibilities is that of an active bystander, “to stop things from going wrong, like at a party,” he said. “Constructive ways to do the right thing.”
Burks arrived at Vanderbilt for the 2013 season, a few months after four former football players sexually assaulted a fellow student, and some of them took videos of photos of the incidents on their cellphones.
During the trial, defense attorneys argued that the culture of the elite private school was to blame and that drunken sex was common. According to testimony, other athletes saw the woman lying unconscious, partly naked in the hallway, and did nothing to help.
Project Safe opened in the aftermath, and changing the culture is an objective, one that must spread on campuses — and with athletes doing the right thing — across the nation.