HOOVER, Ala. — Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey opened football media days talking about integration of sports in the league and the upcoming 50th anniversary of that moment.
Sankey talked at length Monday about Nate Northington’s debut on Sept. 30, 1967 for Kentucky against Mississippi. The commissioner gave a history lesson on the timeline of integration in the league, including when Northington, then a sophomore, becoming the first African-American to play in a varsity SEC football game.
Sankey said by playing in a football game, “Nate Northington affected us all.”
The commissioner did talk about other issues, including scheduling, recruiting and instant replay. But he devoted a lot of his time talking about integration.
There were four black football players on that Wildcats team: Northington, Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg.
Page, Northington’s roommate, died the day before the game from a neck injury sustained during a preseason practice. They were the SEC’s first black scholarship football players.
Kentucky has erected bronze statues of all four players. Sankey said the SEC has invited Northington, Hackett, Hogg and Page’s family to the league championship game in December “to join us in remembering, honoring and celebrating what they helped change 50 years ago.”
Hackett went on to become the SEC’s first black team captain in any sport.
Sankey also listed the first black varsity athlete to compete for each current SEC member. Then he recited lyrics from the U2 song “All that You Can’t Leave Behind”.
“What once was hurt, what once was friction, what left a mark no longer stings, because grace makes beauty out of ugly things,” he said, quoting the song.
“Our journey is certainly not complete,” Sankey said. “There’s hurt. There still remains friction, but to those who helped us change and to those who will help us change in the future, thank you for the strength and the grace you’ve shown.”
Sankey’s time at the podium wasn’t all about looking back or touting the SEC’s success during the last school year. He touched on a few issues facing the league:
SCHEDULING: Sankey said the league doesn’t oppose moving to a proposed 14-week schedule that includes two open dates, but wants to make sure the start of preseason practice doesn’t move too early in the summer.
“We’re open to those ideas,” he said. “We’re open to a 14-week season but we want to be very careful about not moving the standard for football practice even earlier into the summer.”
REPLAY: He said the SEC is asking the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee to allow an expanded use of instant replay in baseball. The SEC will already be implementing a centralized, collaborative replay in league men’s basketball games.
RECRUITING: The SEC has opposed some of the NCAA changes to recruiting rules, including the timeline for early campus visits by high school juniors and the 25-player signing cap. Sankey and the SEC have formed a group to work on trying to find what it considers a better solution. The group includes athletic directors Scott Stricklin (Florida) and Jeff Long (Arkansas), along with four coaches: Alabama’s Nick Saban, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Missouri’s Barry Odom and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason.