HOOVER, Ala. – For the Southeastern Conference, football season can’t get here soon enough.
The league that’s home to eight of the past 10 national titles has also been home to a large amount of offseason problems. There’s been an ongoing NCAA investigation at Mississippi, a Title IX lawsuit at Tennessee and several legal issues that haven’t painted the league as college football’s best citizens.
Still, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey doesn’t believe the league has an image problem.
“The body of work of this conference far outweighs those problems, yet we are attentive to those realities,” Sankey said. “We understand when the issues arise, we need to even be more attentive, be that on campus or as a collective group.”
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was one of the coaches at SEC Media Days who faced some pointed questions on Tuesday. The Bulldogs recently allowed prized recruit Jeffery Simmons to enroll in school and join the football team, even though he’s still facing misdemeanor assault charges for striking a woman during a fight in March.
The school announced a one-game suspension for Simmons in June, a decision that was roundly criticized as being too lenient. The league already has guidelines for potential transfers who have serious misconduct in their past, but those rules don’t apply to incoming recruits.
Mullen defended the decision, saying that he was “thrilled that we’re having Jeffery as part of our family.”
“Our university did a very, very thorough investigation into everything that happened within the situation there and came up with the conclusion that, you know, we felt that Jeffery deserved the opportunity to be part of our family,” Mullen said.
Ole Miss – which won 10 games last season, including the Sugar Bowl – has been in the middle of a long-running NCAA investigation that involves the football, women’s basketball and track and field programs.
The university has already self-imposed some penalties for football, including scholarship reductions and three years of probation. The NCAA can accept or add to those penalties.
The case could drag on for several more months. Ole Miss asked to delay a hearing before the Committee on Infractions while it looks into draft-night allegations involving former left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who was picked in the first round by the Miami Dolphins.
Tunsil was the story of the draft after a bizarre 30-second video of him smoking from a gas mask-bong contraption was posted on his Twitter account just before the selections began. There was also a post on Tunsil’s Instagram account showing an alleged text conversation with a football staff member about arranging payment for bills.
Tunsil said both accounts were hacked but acknowledged following the draft that he accepted money from a coach while he was at Ole Miss.
At best, it was an embarrassing episode for the school and the league. At worst, it could add to Ole Miss’ penalty from the NCAA. Coach Hugh Freeze and athletic director Ross Bjork have been mostly silent about the investigation over the past few months.
The Rebels come to SEC Media Days on Thursday.
“The central thought must be – must be – we never have a team return a championship trophy, never vacate any wins, and never have one of our teams precluded from postseason competition because we either can’t follow the NCAA’s rules or can’t meet the expectations for academic success,” Sankey said.
Other issues the leagues teams are facing:
Alabama: The Tide’s star left tackle Cam Robinson and reserve defensive back Laurence “Hootie” Jones were arrested in Monroe, Louisiana, in May on drug and weapons charges, but the charges were later dropped after a sympathetic district attorney said he didn’t want to “ruin the lives” of the two football players.
Coach Nick Saban has not announced if the players will face discipline. He will talk at SEC Media Days on Wednesday.
Tennessee: Tennessee recently reached a $2.48 million settlement of a Title IX lawsuit regarding its handling of assault complaints against athletes. The settlement included steps on how the school planned to improve the way it addresses incidents involving sexual misconduct.
The lawsuit was filed in Nashville by eight unidentified women who said the school had violated Title IX regulations and fostered a “hostile sexual environment” through a policy of indifference toward assaults by athletes.
Georgia: The Bulldogs have had eight arrests since Kirby Smart became the team’s coach in December. Georgia defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter was arrested last weekend for the second time in five months on alcohol-related charges, including misdemeanor DUI and underage possession of alcohol. He’ll miss at least two games per school policy.
Vanderbilt: Two former football players – Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey – were both convicted on rape charges for a second time. The two players were originally convicted last year following the 2013 incident, but the verdicts were tossed because a juror did not reveal he was a victim of statutory rape.
Two more players still await trial.
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