Auburn quarterback Cam Newton—the best player on one of the two best teams in college football—just won the Heisman Trophy for, well, being the best player in college football. On hand to witness the predictable results of the award ceremony in New York City were the other finalists, ESPN cameras, a full compliment of sports journalists, and his mother Jackie Newton. Absent, significantly, was Cam’s father, Cecil, who is being penalized for soliciting a bribe from Mississippi State in return for getting Cam to sign with the school, an extremely serious transgression in the eyes of the NCAA, which regards its famous, merchandise-selling, cash-cow athletes as amateurs. Cam hasn’t been punished for his dad’s actions (so far) because like Richard Nixon, he can claim “plausible deniability”—the NCAA forgave him, for he knew not what his father did.
Cam Newton has been under a cloud for the majority of his collegiate career. At Florida University in 2007 and 2008, he was the backup for squeaky-clean evangelist Tim Tebow, until he was accused of both stealing a laptop and committing academic fraud. Whether because of these allegations or because Tebow decided to stay at Florida for his senior year (keeping Newton confined to the bench), Newton transferred to a junior college, where he shredded opposing defenses and became one of the most sought-after recruits of 2010.
Big-time recruits in Division I football aren’t just athletes, they’re potential revenue streams. They sell jerseys, they boost TV ratings, they take their teams to bowl games that pay millions of dollars out to the school, and they can lead to more big-time recruits who want to play for a highly recognized program. Yet recruits who earn big bucks for their program are given the same amount of money—in the form of a scholarship—than anonymous players who rarely touch the ball. So seen a certain way, Cecil Newton’s back-room maneuverings were just the attempt of a father to get his share of the money that his son would no doubt have earned for Mississippi State. Seen another way, Cecil is a greedy con-man who sees dollar signs when he looks at his son, and isn’t even competent enough to successfully solicit a bribe.
The big question in all of this was whether Cecil tried to get a payday from Auburn as well. After all, if at first you don’t succeed, why not try again? The NCAA has so far not accused Auburn of any wrongdoing, and of course the ruling that Cam didn’t know what Cecil was doing means that the star quarterback will get to play in what will probably be the most-watched game of the year, the January 10 National Championship.
There certainly is no hard evidence that Cam did anything worthy of NCAA censure while at Auburn; the investigation is ongoing and involves the FBI and the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office. But if he did, no one has any incentive to reveal it in the current system. If the NCAA finds out he did know what his father was doing and bans him for the biggest game of the year, the scandal will dominate the conversation for the weeks leading up to the game, and probably the weeks after that. The TV ratings for the game itself will drop. And the 2010 college football season will be remembered as the one where a bribery scandal ruined the title game.
If, on the other hand, any wrongdoing by Cam Newton is discovered after the last game ends and Newton is already earning millions of dollars in the NFL, nobody gets seriously punished or hurt. As in the case of Reggie Bush, whose family was given a house by an agent while he was at USC, Newton would likely have his Heisman revoked, Auburn might have its wins “taken away,” and be banned from competing in bowl game, as well as having some of their scholarships taken away.
USC kept the money it made from the Bush years, however. Bush and USC coach Pete Carroll are making millions in the NFL, and even though the wins are officially off the books, the fans still remember. The loss of scholarships no doubt hurt, but a major program like USC or Auburn will be able to recover. The NCAA has successfully created a system where players who earn money for their schools are not paid, and when they do get paid, they don’t get punished. If you were Cecil Newton, why wouldn’t you have tried to get a bribe?