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The SEC’s Greatest Strength Is Also Its Greatest Weakness

Fan passion.

When people ask what makes the SEC so great, the answer always comes back to “fan passion.”

It’s fan passion that fills stadiums across the South every Saturday.  It’s fan passion that has made the SEC Championship Game the crown jewel of all league title games.  It’s fan passion that leads thousands of donors to pour millions of dollars into SEC athletic programs each year.  It’s fan passion that drives athletic directors to demand excellence and championships from their coaches.

Fan passion is the SEC greatest strength.  SEC fans will do absolutely anything for their school. 

But. 

SEC fans will do absolutely anything for their school.  That’s why fan passion is also the SEC’s greatest weakness.

Take the current mess surrounding Cameron Newton.  Now, no one will admit that their school’s coaches, officials, boosters or fans might have had anything to do with the allegations surrounding Auburn’s quarterback, but someone somewhere is talking.  Someone is leaking info.  And they’re doing so because they want their team to win… and Auburn to lose.

This isn’t about Auburn, either.  No matter how loudly AU fans will moan about being picked on.  When there’s blood in the water, SEC fans turn into piranhas.  If Newton had signed with Mississippi State, it would be MSU on the slab right now.  As it turned out — for whatever reason — Newton inked with Gene Chizik and now Auburn’s being dissected.

But in their rush to undermine another program, some people might have put themselves in harm’s way.  Whoever leaked word that Newton had cheated academically at Florida likely violated federal privacy laws.  That could mean jail time if a federal judge gets involved.  Thayer Evans — who wrote the academic allegations story for FoxSports.com — could be forced to give up his source if a criminal investigation is launched.  If it’s found that a coach was involved in leaking the info, it’s likely that his tenure will come to an end.  We’re not talking about breaking an NCAA rule here, we’re talking about breaking a federal law.

Even people on the outskirts of the story are simmering in uncomfortable waters.  The FBI wants to talk to John Bond.  Now Bond is in no trouble himself, but if you’re like me, you wouldn’t want to sit down with the FBI for any reason.  I’m guessing Bond feels the same way.

Eric DeLaet is an employee of Florida’s football program.  His brother posted information about the FoxSports.com report before it ever hit the web.  Now AuburnSports.com has traced things all the way back to DeLaet inside the Gators’ own house.  If nothing else, one person working in the UF football offices appears to have known that this was coming and shared that information.  Someone will want to speak with Eric DeLaet at some point to find out what he knew and how he knew it.  Especially if a criminal investigation is launched.

All of this nonsense is playing out on a national scene, of course.  And things could get even worse.  If Auburn defeats Georgia and Florida beats South Carolina on Saturday, the SEC Championship Game will feature two programs at the center of the Newton saga.

That will be great news for ESPN’s week-long coverage of the title game.  It will certainly be great for CBS’ gameday ratings.

But it won’t be great news for the Southeastern Conference.  And you can be sure that commissioner Mike Slive doesn’t want this SWC-like infighting to be front and center as the league puts on its A-1 dog and pony show. 

The SEC Championship Game is all that’s right about the league.  This year it could become the backdrop for all that’s wrong with the league.

Slive said this week that the SEC has done a good job of cleaning up its act under his watch.  “The old days that had the idea of anything goes, I think those days are gone.”

Maybe when it comes to cheating, but not when it comes to mudslinging.

“We will have our incidents,” Slive told USA Today.  “Every league has incidents that occur.  (But) we’ve got a road map.  We’ve got a philosophy.  Is it easy?  No, but we’re committed to it and, in my mind, we have made progress… the kind of strides in less than a decade that people, whether they’re here or elsewhere, most likely didn’t believe we could make.”

Slive is correct.  The SEC’s reputation had improved in recent years.  But those improvements are fading fast.  Whether it’s a textbook scandal at Alabama, a coach lying to investigators at Tennessee, a man of John Calipari’s reputation at Kentucky, or the current allegations being directed at Auburn, the SEC makes as many bad headlines these days as good ones.

Tony Barnhart of The AJC suggests today that it might be time for Slive to put his foot down. 


“… what we have now are charges, albeit unsubstantiated, that coaches in this league have violated federal privacy laws at worst and SEC policy at best.  It’s probably a good time for everybody in the league to be reminded that they work for the institution and are obligated to follow the rules of the Southeastern Conference.  They also need to be reminded that if they violate those policies, the result will not be pretty.”


The problem is, what can the commissioner do at this point?  Most likely the leaker for FoxSports’ academic story was someone closer to UF’s Student Conduct Committee than to the Gator football program (even though that messageboard post that traces all the way back inside the UF football offices might raise some doubts to that).  How can Slive control a leaker who might simply serve on Florida’s Student Conduct Committee?

Slive can try to control coaches.  He can tell ADs and presidents to get control of their underlings before the SEC’s roof caves in on everyone.  But he can’t control fans and boosters.  And fandom is likely what led to the academic leak.

Fans and boosters have spread accusations and rumors about Newton’s recruitment from the day he signed with Auburn to right… this… minute.  That kind of messageboard muck is just begging out to be raked.  And there are plenty of reporters just living to rake it. 

SEC fans love their schools.  Some will do anything for their schools.  Some will spread any rumor or make any accusation to help their school (and hurt a rival).  Apparently some will even violate federal laws.

Slive simply can’t control that.  That fan passion is the SEC’s greatest strength.  But it’s also its greatest weakness.

(And for the record — I think this is obvious, but many do not — when I write “fans” this does not refer to all “fans.”  It’s like saying “Americans like baseball.”  Yes, many do.  But not all do.  So you can save the emails.)

 




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