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Southeastern Conference commissioner reflects on his tenure as a member of the DI Committee on Infractions

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey says he has derived deep satisfaction from his committee on infractions role. Southeastern Conference photo

Greg Sankey, now one of the most influential figures in college sports, soaked in his first Division I Committee on Infractions hearing in August 1990 as an admittedly “wide-eyed” compliance director. Working for Northwestern State, a Division I school in Louisiana, Sankey quietly watched the interplay between representatives from his school and members of the committee, who were tasked with digesting the NCAA enforcement staff’s case and the school’s defense. The committee’s job was to determine whether violations had occurred and, if so, what penalties should be rendered.

“You realize just how uncomfortable it is for a university headed into that hearing,” says Sankey, now commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. “In a way, it felt like you’re the visiting team.”

That experience and ones to follow would shape Sankey’s approach to his own work as a Committee on Infractions member. He understood that the process, no matter how thoughtful or fair, can be perceived as antagonistic by those alleged to have committed violations.

He will wrap up his nine-year tenure on the committee in August. He counts the volunteer work as one of the highlights of his career, though he thinks the ever-evolving process — built on a foundation of peers judging peers — deserves continued scrutiny and further refinement, given what’s at stake for schools, just as he came to learn firsthand as a fledgling administrator nearly three decades ago. “I think we have to be careful to evaluate and not think that we’ve necessarily reached the finish line on all of this,” he says of recent efforts to reform the process, including the new independent resolution model for complex cases that will take effect in August.

Given his years of compliance experience at Northwestern State, then as commissioner of the Southland Conference and, eventually, the SEC, Sankey was tapped for a role on the Committee on Infractions in 2010 while he was working for then-SEC Commissioner Mike Slive. Over the years, Sankey has seen seismic changes in the committee’s structure, as well as how it processes cases and assesses penalties. Shortly after Sankey joined the committee, it expanded from 10 members to as many as 24, who break into smaller panels that decide cases. Given the pressure and responsibility to make appropriate decisions, Sankey says he and other committee members devote untold free time to digesting files for each case. To adequately prepare, some require as many as 40 to 50 hours of reading during off hours. “There’s no time for novels,” he quips. 

Sankey says he derived deep satisfaction from the role and valued in-person asides or phone calls from coaches or administrators who told him that while they may not have agreed with a decision, they appreciated his fair handling of their cases. He admits public criticism, particularly from fellow NCAA members, has gnawed at him and fellow committee members. Sankey recused himself from cases involving schools in his conference, but he occasionally elicited ire when he sat on panels that heard cases involving schools from other prominent conferences, with many questioning his ability to be impartial.

The rancor peaked during a 2017 case involving potential academic fraud at North Carolina. In that case, Sankey and fellow committee members ultimately found that the school hadn’t violated NCAA rules, despite their serious reservations with some academic practices at the school. 

“The reality is these are difficult circumstances,” he says. “You’re affecting the status of an athletic program or a team within that athletic program. Its fan base has feelings. Yet the membership has said, ‘Here are the rules, here is the process for handling accountability when those rules are not followed and here are the penalties that may be applied.’ That is a weighty assignment for anyone.”

Despite those challenges, he urges other NCAA members with relevant experience to consider serving on the committee alongside their peers. “The public nature, the criticism that can be leveled, I think discourages people,” he says. “I think that’s a loss. But I do know that there are any number of leaders now in this realm who could make a contribution.”

The Division I Committee on Infractions at a glance

The committee includes up to 24 members. Their professional profiles include:

  • Current or former university presidents and chancellors.
  • Current or former athletics directors.
  • Conference commissioners and other representatives.
  • Former NCAA coaches. 
  • Campus and conference compliance officials.
  • Faculty athletics representatives.
  • Other university staff or faculty.
  • Members of the public with formal legal training.

Professional backgrounds of current and former COI members include:

  • Former United States attorney general.
  • Southeastern Conference commissioner.
  • Former head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
  • Member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
  • Former general counsel to the FBI.
  • General counsel to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
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