When it came to making a decision regarding the transfer of former Alabama football player Maurice Smith, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey took the path of least resistance.
The sign hangs there, hypothetically, at a make-believe restaurant frequented by real-life SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.
“This is a non-smoking establishment. But if you’d like to smoke, it’s totally fine.”
Maybe that’s where he got the idea. Because that, in effect, is what Sankey said Friday when he granted former Alabama football player Maurice Smith a conditional waiver to transfer to SEC rival Georgia, and should he so choose, play immediately.
Sankey had two clear choices regarding the SEC’s graduate transfer rule:
1) Enforce it as written.
Or 2) At any point since taking the job more than a year ago, open a dialogue about the possibility of doing away with the rule all together.
He did neither. Instead, he opted for a blurry and ambiguous third option — bending the rule in such an extreme and awkward manner that it, like the man himself, appears to have no backbone.
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Nick Saban, despite harsh criticism by some factions of the media, seems to have merely been following what he believed to be clear, unequivocal SEC guidelines. Had he known Sankey would ignore those guidelines, he may well have released Smith much earlier than he did.
Saban is not the real villain here. In this short but twisted saga, a handful of antagonists took center stage.
There’s Kirby Smart, who won’t release his players to Miami, but who is more than willing to take players from conference rivals. Rumors continue to swirl that tampering was involved. But for the moment they are just that – rumors.
Then there’s the usual cast of media characters, who spewed their tired, lazy vitriol at Saban without mercy, and without bothering to address Smart’s hypocrisy in the matter (which is hypocritical in itself).
And finally there’s the Smith family, who it appears may have been less than forthright in Smith’s choice of a graduate degree program.
But at least in this particular instance, it is Sankey — a good man in a tough job — who is the biggest villain of all.
Reasonable minds can disagree on whether the rule should be a rule. That’s a separate discussion. But there’s no denying the fact that it is a rule — one voted into existence some 16 years ago by the member institutions he now represents.
Sankey, for all intents and purposes, ignored that rule. And he did so in order to avoid the very criticism he allowed Saban to endure. That’s not leadership. That’s cowardice.
And he made matters worse by pointing to Smith’s “academic pursuits” as the chief reason why a waiver was granted, when everyone knows this was a football decision, not an academic one.
It’s possible that over time the plot will thin — to the point that the truth will be easier to see. But for now, what happened “then” is not the critical issue. The more important question is, what happens next.
Perhaps we should refer to Forest Gump, the greatest kick returner in the apocryphal history of Alabama football, to speculate on the fallout of Sankey’s decision. When you open up a box of chocolates, he said, you never know what you’re gonna get.
Therein lies the rub. The unknown. Some think this has the potential to create the equivalent of NFL free agency in the SEC. Others, particularly in the media, find that notion absurd. But it’s all conjecture at this stage. No one can accurately predict where this decision may lead.
What we do know is this. The chocolate box has a first name. Pandora. To this point — and for many good reasons — league coaches, Athletic Directors and administrators have chosen to keep the lid closed.
The media, on the other hand, seems eager to allow unconditional transfers across the board. They don’t seem to mind the potential fallout. They won’t even acknowledge the possibility of it.
Ironically, the people most willing to have that box opened are the ones who never have to deal with what flies out of it.