SEC commissioner Greg Sankey: NCAA 'distracted' by NIL-related cases, needs to focus on 'big realities'

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey says the NCAA should focus on the “big realities” in college athletics rather than pursuing individual cases of recruiting violations of the association’s name, image and likeness (NIL) policy.

In an interview with Yahoo Sports this week, Sankey suggested that the NCAA and its enforcement staff are “distracted” by NIL-related recruiting cases. Though he did not address specific cases, at least two programs in his own league are under investigation over such matters, including Tennessee and Florida. The association recently levied sanctions on Florida State for NIL-related recruiting violations as well.

“I have a history of not commenting on specific matters,” Sankey said when asked about the Tennessee case. “What’s in front of us are a big set of realities. Not simply — quote — cases, but big realities. We need to be dealing with the big realities.”

Those realities are at the center of news that emerged earlier Friday. The SEC and Big Ten are creating a joint advisory group of presidents and athletic directors to explore those most pressing challenges before college athletics.

Those issues include, most notably, more than a half-dozen ongoing antitrust cases that challenge NCAA policy regulating transfer movement, NIL inducements and tampering, as well as cases that could make athletes employees and one, House v. NCAA, that could cost the association billions in retroactive NIL.

“Those are the big pictures that need to be resolved as the primary focus,” Sankey said. “We shouldn’t be distracted by specific matters. We need to deal with the big picture.”

Asked to clarify if he is describing investigations as “distractions,” Sankey said, “I’ll stop there.”

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is one of the most influential people in college athletics. (Johnnie Izquierdo/Getty Images)
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is one of the most influential people in college athletics. (Johnnie Izquierdo/Getty Images)

Tennessee’s administration is taking a similar approach to the investigation. Its university and athletic administration has released scathing statements portraying the NCAA’s inquiry as baseless, accusing the association of leaking details of the investigation and lambasting NCAA officials for their ignorance of the college environment.

In response to the investigation, attorneys general from Tennessee and Virginia filed a lawsuit against the NCAA, seeking a restraining order that would prevent the association from enforcing its recruiting policy on NIL-related inducements and tampering.

In a statement he released Thursday, Tennessee athletic director Danny White echoed comments from Sankey but in a bolder way, calling the inquiry “obviously silly and not productive.”

“We need to be spending our time and energy on solutions to better organize college athletics in the NIL era,” White wrote.

The investigation into Tennessee stems from the courtship, by its booster collective, of then-five-star quarterback and current freshman Nico Iamaleava, sources tell Yahoo Sports. The case, like House v. NCAA, could produce a ground-breaking ruling that ends all NIL restrictions.

At the center of the case is the NCAA’s somewhat murky NIL guidelines, ever-evolving guidance that even the association acknowledges needed multiple clarifications over the past two years. Tennessee contends that the NCAA is retroactively punishing the school for potential violations that transpired during an ambiguous time at the start of the NIL era.

“After reviewing thousands of Tennessee coach and personnel phone records, NCAA investigators didn’t find a single NIL violation, so they moved the goal post to fit a predetermined outcome,” White said in his statement. “They are stating the nebulous, contradictory NIL guidelines (written by the NCAA not the membership) don’t matter and applying the old booster bylaws to collectives.

“If that’s the case,” White continued, “then 100% of the major programs in college athletics have significant violations.”