SEC success can't mask backslide on behavior, NCAA rules

HOOVER, Ala. — Just six months ago, longtime employees of the Southeastern Conference were picking confetti off the floor of a stadium in Arizona, smiles beaming as Alabama’s razor-thin victory in the College Football Playoff championship game had ended any narrative of the league’s decline.

After two years without a title — a sacrilege in the recent history of the SEC — the league gathers for its annual media days this week with a sense of order restored. No more questions about whether the Big Ten or Pac-12 have caught up. No more anemic bowl records to explain away.

But just as the SEC’s superiority has resurfaced, so has its history of unflattering off-field drama.

A little more than a year after former commissioner Mike Slive retired having reached his longstanding goal of a probation-free SEC, Ole Miss now faces a far-reaching infractions case that could significantly impact its surprising recent football success. Missouri has spent recent months dealing with major infractions in men’s basketball. And in April, Alabama parted ways with one of its best recruiters in defensive line coach Bo Davis due to NCAA rules violations, though it seems unlikely there will be further penalties assessed to the school.

Meanwhile, after the SEC positioned itself as a leader on domestic violence with a rule relating to transfers, Mississippi State decided to allow the enrollment of five-star recruit Jeffery Simmons, who had been videotaped pummeling a woman, instead giving him a one-game suspension.

And just last week, Tennessee settled a Federal Title IX lawsuit for $2.48 million with eight women who alleged they had been physically or sexually assaulted by athletes between 2013 and 2015.

Though commissioner Greg Sankey will likely use the bulk of his annual address Monday to tout the league’s on-field achievements and academic benchmarks, this has not been an ideal offseason for the SEC’s image.

And those issues aren’t going away, even as the games loom closer. (Sankey, through a spokesperson, declined the opportunity to talk about them until his regular media availability Monday.)

It could produce some interesting, and perhaps awkward moments, as the SEC Network’s cameras roll this week.

When Mississippi State announced at the end of the the SEC spring meetings that Simmons would be part of the football program, coach Dan Mullen made sure he had already left town, instead letting athletics director Scott Stricklin get pummeled with questions during a media session that quickly turned hostile. Mullen will surely want to steer the conversation toward football matters.

But these are different times. Violence against women has become a frontburner issue for the NCAA. And the Baylor fallout weighs heavily on college football because the underlying fault lines that caused it — pressure to win combined with the cult of the coach and a willingness overlook too many issues with talented athletes — are not unique to Baylor.

Mississippi State’s decision on Simmons smacks of all those things, and it simply isn’t good enough anymore for a coach to say “trust me” and move on to his wide receiver depth. The stakes are too high.

Tennessee’s Butch Jones, at least, will be able to cite the terms of the lawsuit settlement in changing the subject. But the larger culture questions this case presented are still relevant.

Drae Bowles, a former Tennessee receiver, filed a sworn declaration in the lawsuit claiming Jones said he “betrayed the team” after helping a woman who claimed she was raped by two other Vol football players.

Jones vehemently denied the allegation, calling it “absolutely false,” but there will be no trial to determine whether Tennessee’s locker room was indeed a haven for retribution, a place where Bowles was shunned and even physically assaulted by teammates, as he claimed, because he assisted a victim. Instead, there’s simply a $2.48 million settlement (significantly less than Jones’ annual salary), a promise to make some administrative changes at the university and a tacit understanding that Jones’ job is not really in jeopardy.

The allegations in that case were so horrifying, it makes the scandal at Ole Miss seem trivial by comparison. Still, there’s a lot of intrigue about what’s going on in Oxford and not just because of the allegations but how much effort coach Hugh Freeze has simultaneously put into defending his reputation.

Ole Miss is in the odd position of admitting to several major rules violations — with nine of the 13 allegations against the football program occurring during the Freeze era — while trying to frame them as the fault of rogue boosters and Laremy Tunsil’s shady stepfather. Both the Ole Miss administration and Freeze have essentially said they are guilty but didn’t do anything wrong.

“To me there is a difference in making a mistake and a willful intent to circumvent rules to try and gain an advantage,” Freeze told reporters at SEC spring meetings.

The problem is, many of Freeze’s coaching colleagues don’t buy it — and the NCAA may not either. Freeze’s instant and unprecedented recruiting success in 2013 — landing the No. 1-ranked recruit at three positions, all from outside the state of Mississippi — invited suspicion and skepticism about how things were getting done in Oxford.

And though Freeze has adamantly proclaimed that there’s no evidence of recruits being bought while blaming the media for the narrative that Ole Miss has been cheating, the NCAA put together a case showing, at minimum, that high-profile players were getting hooked up with loaner cars and hotel rooms and that Freeze’s staff was using a booster from Memphis as a conduit to prospects who were being shuttled back and forth to campus.

It may all seem like petty stuff, but there’s a big collection of it — enough for the NCAA to establish a pattern and hit Ole Miss hard, if it wants to. And the uncertainty of where the case goes from here will overshadow everything else about the start of Ole Miss’ season, which isn’t what it envisioned coming off back-to-back appearances in New Year’s Six bowl games.

And finally, there’s Alabama, which is always at the center of everything in the SEC. Things are back to normal in Tuscaloosa, which means coach Nick Saban won’t be in a defensive mood at media days like he was the past two years.

Still, he’s going to get asked about Davis and about whether his best player, starting left tackle Cam Robinson, is going to face punishment after getting arrested in his hometown for marijuana and felony possession of a stolen handgun. Though the case is not being prosecuted due to lack of evidence, meaning Robinson is in the clear legally, it will remain a pesky topic until Saban settles it.

Of course, there’s going to be plenty of football to talk about this week, too. The games are just eight weeks away. After an offseason with this many unflattering headlines, that can only be a good thing for the SEC.

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