Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 12, 2010

Under Pressure, The NCAA Fumbles

To the surprise of absolutely no one, sophomore quarterback Cam Newton of Auburn was the runaway winner of the Heisman Trophy, presented in an hour-long ceremony broadcast on ESPN Saturday night. The Heisman is the oldest individual award in college football, presented since 1935 to “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.”

Newton was the heavy favorite to win the Heisman throughout the college season. In leading the Auburn Tigers to the Southeastern Conference championship and a berth in the BCS Championship Game against Oregon next month, Newton has often seemed to be toying with opponents. He passed for 28 touchdowns and ran for 20 more. In the annual game against cross-state rival Alabama, Newton spotted the Crimson Tide a 24 point lead before rallying the Tigers to a 28-27 victory. In that game he threw for three scores and ran for a fourth. Against South Carolina in the SEC Championship, Newton was named the game MVP after accounting for a career-best six touchdowns (four throwing, two running). Auburn buried South Carolina 56-17, setting SEC Championship game records for the most points scored and largest margin of victory.

But for all of his accomplishments on the field, Cam Newton was dogged throughout the second half of the season by questions about his activities off it. Newton began his collegiate career at Florida, where he backed up Heisman winner Tim Tebow as a freshman. Injured at the start of his sophomore year, Newton opted to sit out the season on a medical leave. Before the season ended he was suspended from the team when he was charged with receiving stolen property in the form of a laptop computer. The charges were later dropped when Newton completed a court-ordered diversion program.

Newton left Florida and spent a year at tiny Blinn College. After leading Blinn to the 2009 National Junior College championship, he was easily the top quarterback recruit in the country. Enter Kenny Rogers, a self-described recruiter and former player at Mississippi State. In October Rogers publicly alleged that he had been approached by Newton’s father, seeking a six-figure payment in exchange for Newton agreeing to enroll at Mississippi State. As the NCAA investigated these allegations, Fox Sports revealed that Newton’s explanation about his reason for leaving Florida was false. While both the quarterback and his father had said that he left because of Tebow’s decision to return for his senior year, the network reported that Newton had been caught cheating three times, and left before being expelled. A check of the time line revealed that by the date Tebow announced his decision to play his final season, Newton was no longer enrolled at Florida.

Just days before the SEC Championship the NCAA issued a preliminary determination that Cecil Newton Sr. had in fact approached Mississippi State with a “play-for-pay” scheme but that his son knew nothing about it. While the NCAA investigation has not been finalized, Cam Newton was ruled eligible to play, and Heisman voters were given a green light to cast their ballots for the heavy favorite.

So it is that the Cam Newton story reflects both the pristine beauty and the ugly underbelly of big time college sports. On the one hand it is about remarkable athletic achievement, about setting records and filling stadiums with raucous students and cheering alumni on crisp fall afternoons. It is about the vitality of youth and the redemptive power of second chances. Given the great differences between college and professional offensive schemes, it is perhaps also about enjoying the moment in the sun that is a college season. Great college quarterbacks do not automatically become great signal callers in the NFL.

On the other hand, it is also about greed and manipulation. It is about a sense of entitlement that leaves one believing that normal rules don’t apply to special people. And it is about hangers-on looking at a star athlete and seeing nothing more than a meal ticket.

First the NCAA and then the Heisman voters had to reconcile these two competing stories. The latter group was largely let off the hook by the decision of the former to allow Newton to play, at least for now. Still at least some voters seemed to be paying special attention to the last two words, “with integrity,” in the Heisman charge. While Newton won overwhelmingly, he did not set a record for either the highest vote total or the most first place votes, as many had predicted prior to Saturday’s announcement. And 105 voters, or 12% of those voting, did not name Newton at all despite being required to list a first, second, and third choice on their ballot. And surely the many journalists and former Heisman winners who make up the Heisman electorate and voted for Newton will be hoping that there are no further as yet unread chapters in the play-for-pay story.

As for the NCAA, the normally plodding Association raced through an investigation so as not to interfere with important things like the Southeastern Conference schedule or the announcement of which teams would play for the BCS championship, much less the Heisman voting. Its announcement left open the possibility of further sanctions without giving any indication that any actual additional investigating was going to occur. The one sanction that the NCAA did issue, limiting Cecil Newton Sr.’s “access” to the Auburn football program, was so vague as to be meaningless.

In holding Cam Newton harmless for the sins of his father, it gave every future star athlete suspected of wrongdoing a ready-made excuse. It also essentially contradicted the harsh penalties imposed on the University of Southern California a year ago because of special treatment afforded the family of Reggie Bush when he was at USC. USC athletic director Pat Haden expressed surprise at the Cam Newton ruling. Of course in the Bush case the NCAA was dealing with actions that were several years old, not something that was going to impact a college football season approaching its climax.

On paper the NCAA is all about high-minded ideals; noble goals like balancing the athletic and educational experience and pursuing the highest levels of integrity and sportsmanship. And when it comes to the administration and regulation of college water polo, the Association probably still does a fine job. But when dealing with the big money college sports, Division I football and basketball, the NCAA has again proved itself no match for the power of corporate sponsors, television contracts, and the major collegiate conferences. Like all of those, the NCAA turns out to be just one more enabler, looking past that ugly underbelly and hoping that fans will as well.

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