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Mike Slive is the most powerful man in college athletics because he’s capable of winning one argument after another. But he’s also the most powerful man in college athletics because he understands what arguments he can’t win. In today’s state of the SEC address, Slive faced a tough obstacle — on the day before he spoke the NCAA announced that LSU was guilty of a major violation. That meant that 11 of the 12 SEC schools had been guilty of a major violation since 1990. The only holdout? Vanderbilt. And clearly Vanderbilt doesn’t win anything in football. With the continuing firestorm surrounding Auburn, it seemed likely that much of the media attention would focus on the SEC’s own perceived corruption as Mike Slive addressed over 900 media members in a packed Wynfey Hotel ballroom. At long last would the SEC’s dominance be challenged not by other teams, but by the belief that all college athletics was corrupt? The SEC wasn’t so much winning, critics could argue, as it was cheating the best.
Slive faced a nearly intractable problem. How could he talk about solving the issues facing college athletics without seeming to be the worst kind of hypocrite? I’ll tell you, he drafted the best paragraph of his career.
In his third paragraph, Slive wrote, “…we don’t have the luxury of acting as if it’s business as usual. And that’s been made clear by the headlines emanating from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Gulf to the Great Lakes. As NCAA President Emmert has observed, the events giving rise to these headlines indicate that intercollegiate athletics has lost the benefit of the doubt.”
Go back and read what I’ve quoted above. Slive just executed what is perhaps the most brilliant rhetorical move of his career. That paragraph was no accident. Slive knew exactly what he was doing. He spends hours, days, weeks even agonizing over the proper phrasings of his address. Last year he told me his staff wouldn’t allow him to use the first several drafts of his speech, the part dealing with Lane Kiffin. Ultimately Slive decided to slight him by not mentioning Kiffin’s name at all. But what do you do when you don’t have the best argument to make? You change the argument. In one skillfully drafted paragraph Slive acknowledged the siege that college athletics is under by noting geographical regions in each part of the country. He didn’t name the conferences, mind you, but he told you every single one of them through the rhythm of geography. The Great Lakes = Big Ten. Atlantic = ACC and Big East, Pacific = Pac 12, and the Gulf = the SEC and, clearly, Texas so the Big 12 is included as well. The implication? This is a national crisis that confronts us all, this isn’t the SEC’s issue alone. Then, not content with making this a completely national dilemma, he also put the criticism of the system in the words of the NCAA’s own President. Hearing it live, I thought that Mike Slive said that “intercollegiate athletics has lost the benefit of the doubt.” But if Mike Slive says that, it might sound self-serving and ring hollow. Instead, Slive used President Emmert to make his own case.
How can the NCAA President oppose his own ideas?
Everything else that would come out of the address, the far reaching proposals that could change the shape of college athletics, the expansive ideals for the future that would make scholarships a four year guarantee and give student athletes the full cost of their attendance, all were born with one rhetorical pivot that hardly a single person has noted. From problem to problem solver, cheater to savior in just 80 well-chosen words. The details of Slive’s proposals may well change the scope of intercollegiate athletics, but it was this third paragraph that allowed Slive to change the focus from the SEC’s past to the NCAA’s future. Slive’s the commissioner of the SEC, but after this paragraph he was speaking as the de facto chief of college sports.
Let’s unpack the six things we learned from what will end up being the most newsworthy address, perhaps, of Slive’s career.
1. Mike Slive put the onus on the other conferences to follow his lead.
You think it’s a coincidence that Slive made his comments now, when he’s batting lead off for media days across the country? Of course not. Stratetically Slive used his opening argument to force the Big Ten, the Big 12, the ACC, the Big East, and the Pac-12 to follow the lead of the SEC. Slive’s arguments will now be carried forward and receive new attention at each of those meetings when reporters will ask each of the conference commissioners what they think of his proposal. Each response will create a new story. The perception? The SEC is setting the national agenda for cleaning up college sports.
Let me repeat that, the SEC is leading the charge to clean up college athletics.
If I’d told you that would be a storyline coming out of the summer, you’d have told me I was insane. But now, it’s true.
2. What if the other conference commissioners don’t agree with Slive’s recommendations?
Good luck making that argument.
The perception will be that those conferences aren’t willing to take the necessary steps to clean up college sports. Meanwhile, the SEC is. Slive can argue that he presented the best proposal to clean up college football, but that no one would follow his lead. It’s brilliant, really. The onus is suddenly on the other conferences to match the SEC’s commitment to a cleaner, more equitable collegiate environment.
Somewhere Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney is shaking his head. Br’er Slive just tricked him anew.
Come out against these rules and he’s lost the moral high ground. And there may not be anything on Earth Jim Delaney craves right now than the moral high ground over the SEC. Accede to the rules and the Big Ten is, once more, looking up from behind the SEC.
3. Will the proposed rule changes put the SEC at a competitive disadvantage?
No, that’s the brilliance of the proposals. Slive is proposing these rules for the entirety of the NCAA. That is, everyone would be bound by the same rules.
When they initially heard these ideas many SEC fans reacted with fear that this would end the SEC’s competitive advantage. Far from it. Slive’s proposal would apply across the board to everyone.
4. The devil is in the details.
Slive suggested the return of partial qualifiers. How many? We don’t know. Slive proposed a raise to a 2.5 GPA requirement instead of the present 2.0 GPA. But what of standardized test scores? Right now there’s a sliding scale when it comes to NCAA eligibility. The better you do with your GPA, the lower your SAT or ACT can be. The lower the GPA, the higher your SAT or ACT has to be. Would Slive’s 2.5 GPA allow lower standardized test scores? Even more interestingly, what percentage of SEC athletes in revenue producing sports would be ineligible under the new proposals but eligible under the current rules? Are there athletes ineligible now who might become eligible under the new rules?
Could it be that Slive’s crafted a plan that would preserve the SEC’s competitive balance while at the same time strengthening requirements? I think that’s likely. Slive has not only staked place firmly on the moral high ground by setting the parameters of future debate, but he’s been able to craft proposals that will maintain SEC dominance.
5. Could this proposal also lay the ground work for a new superpower division in college athletics?
The second most interesting paragraph came when Slive talked about recruiting. Slive wrote, “It’s time to push the reset button on the regulatory approach to recruiting in order to move away from the idea that recruiting rules are designed to create a level playing field. There are significant differences between institutions and resources, climate, tradition, history, stadiums, and fan interest among many other things that make the idea of a level playing field an illusion.”
First, note that every one of the differences Slive elucidates are uniquely suited to favor the SEC. And, by the way, don’t think that the climate line was anything other than a direct tweaking of the Big Ten. Again, skillful and understated but there. But, second, if you accept the premise of this argument and expand it beyond recruiting, couldn’t Slive have been arguing, just as easily, for a new division of bigger schools with its own rules and guidelines?
Intentional or not, it’s worth considering. Especially when you pair it with this language on full-cost scholarships. “We recognize that this proposal may be a financial hardship on some, yet at the same time economics cannot alwyas be the reason to avoid doing what is in the best interest of our student-athletes.”
6. Football coaches are fond of quoting Sun Tzu’s the Art of War.
One of Sun Tzu’s most famous maxims is to choose your battles. On Wednesday afternoon Mike Slive avoided a battle he couldn’t win in favor of a battle he could win.
In making his arguments to fundamentally alter college athletics, Slive owes everything to his ability to adopt the mantle of college sports tzar. A mantle he took up thanks to a skillful transition in his third paragraph. Last year Slive made fans and reporters smile when he said, over and over again, that the SEC would not change unless there was a paradigm shift in college athletics. It was a broad phrase that withstood scrutiny, who even knew what that meant?
Today Slive executed his own paradigm shift and it may well end up benefiting all of college athletics. And if nothing else it places the SEC, a league under seige with allegations of cheating, at the forefront of the drive to reform college athletics. Hopefully Slive’s plan can make college sports better.
But I’ll guarantee you one thing — these proposals are definitely going to benefit the SEC.