December 02, 2010
If you went through a bout of cognitive dissonance Wednesday over the NCAA's decision to essentially clear Auburn quarterback Cam Newton of lingering pay-for-play charges, you weren't the only one. So Newton is fully eligible to play in the SEC and BCS championship games, despite the NCAA's verdict that his father had committed a violation by soliciting a six-figure payment from Mississippi State during his son's recruitment last year? How does that work?
According to the NCAA, it just does: The rushed ruling on Newton's eligibility didn't close the inquiry into his dad's dealings (supposedly without Cam's knowledge), and the association has never been much for clarity in the course of an ongoing investigation that could still result in consequences for all involved. According to the SEC, Newton skates (pending further evidence) because of a loophole in the conference's own bylaws, which would render Newton ineligible to play anywhere in the SEC if any representative was paid on his behalf, with or without his knowledge. According to conference spokesman Charles Bloom, that clause doesn't apply to Newton because there was no evidence that anyone actually agreed to pay Cecil Newton for his son's services – he just asked, is all.
So it's OK to stick your hand out as long as no one puts anything in it? A crooked dad gets off for failing in his attempt to shop his gifted son? Isn't that what lawyers refer to as "conspiracy," or something? Even SEC commissioner Mike Slive, in the process of throwing up his hands in the face of his own loophole, isn't down with the way it went down (emphasis added). From USA Today:
"There's not enough clarity," Slive said, "... and we'll try to find a legislative solution so the actions of a parent, whether known or unknown (to the athlete), could render a student-athlete ineligible for competition.
"There has to be a piece of legislation that's clear, that holds people accountable and, to the extent there might be a loophole, closes the loophole. Then, whether the student-athlete knew or didn't know would be an area for mitigation."
In other words: We'll get 'em next time, we promise. Thus did Cecil Newton walk away with a slap on the wrist and a smile on his face, after all, while parents and middlemen across America began lining up to see what they could get behind their budding star's back.
What the ruling boils down to, then, is a novel set of circumstances that very conveniently allows the most celebrated player in the country to fall through the cracks, just in time to lead his team to a conference and possibly a national championship, and claim his personal reward in New York City. There's been some might fine lawyerin' on the Plains over the past month to get the Tigers' MVP past the defense, and they succeeded.
What the Newton Affair is not at this point is a USC redux. Trojan complaints notwithstanding, Cam Newton wasn't held to the same crushing standard as Reggie Bush because Cam Newton is not Reggie Bush.
At least, not according to the jury. In reality, he may be. A lot of high-profile players may be. We don't know what we don't know. But based on its conclusion Wednesday, Newton's not even close to the new gold standard for improper benefits in the eyes of the NCAA.
In the Bush case, the NCAA ruled that Bush's stepfather approached a would-be agent about an improper partnership, that Bush had full knowledge of the partnership, and that both Bush and his parents received cash and gifts as a result of the partnership. It also ruled, crucially, that USC had direct knowledge of the partnership via an assistant coach, Todd McNair. (Whether McNair actually knew anything in reality is another question altogether; the NCAA's verdict against the school in July states clearly that it believes he did, and based its punishment on that judgment.) And if USC didn't know, because the case involved a high-profile player who'd already been under the program's watch for two years, it was only because it had been willfully negligent in finding out.
The NCAA's version of the Newton case begins the same way: Newton's father approached a would-be agent, Kenny Rogers, about an improper partnership – specifically, requesting a cash payment from boosters and coaches at Rogers' alma mater, Mississippi State. Unlike the Bush case, though, there's no evidence (yet) that any money ever changed hands. (The SEC clarified this point Wednesday ) And unlike Bush, the NCAA determined that Cam Newton didn't know about his father's scheme, and didn't benefit from it.
Just as importantly, it apparently finds no evidence that Auburn knew about the scheme when it signed Newton in February, or else that it jumped through the proper compliance hoops to ensure that its own boosters hadn't given in to the same offers that were directed at Mississippi State. Had Newton actually chosen Mississippi State, the outcome might be different. But as it stands, the three damning charges the NCAA used to throw the book at USC in the Bush case – a) The actual payment of improper benefits, b) The knowledge and acceptance of benefits by the player himself and c) University culpability in monitoring an active, enrolled player (as a opposed to a recruit who hasn't even committed to a school) – are all absent in its assessment of Newton's.
Does that assessment describe the reality? Unless you've conducted an independent investigation, that probably depends on which version of reality you want to believe in the first place. But they do explain the vast chasm in outcomes in the two most high-profile individual compliance cases of the last 25 years.
Newton's not A.J. Green, Marcell Dareus or Marvin Austin, either. All three were much bigger stars than Cam Newton at the beginning of the season, when each of them was suspended for varying lengths of time for accepting improper benefits of varying degrees – the key there being that each was found by the NCAA to have actually accepted improper benefits. Newton (so far) has not.
That doesn't mean he's entirely out of the woods. Multiple investigations – by the NCAA, the FBI, the Mississippi Secretary of State – are ongoing. Bush's misdeeds weren't uncovered until after he'd left USC, and if evidence emerges that the younger Newton's role was analagous to Bush's in terms of knowledge and accepting gifts (at least one source has claimed that it was), he and Auburn would be subject to the same revision that cost Bush his Heisman and is almost certain to cost USC a BCS championship when its appeal is exhausted.
In the meantime, though, the process has spoken. If you're inclined to regard that process as incompetent, ineffectual and/or corrupt – and I'd be willing to bet that you are – the perception of a double standard is still just that: A perception. Until we have a concrete set of facts that conflicts with the version put forth by the people assigned and paid to objectively uncover them, college football has no choice but to live with the loophole.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.