November 12, 2010
Auburn has emphatically insisted all week that embattled quarterback Cameron Newton is eligible and will play Saturday against Georgia. Friday, less than 24 hours after ESPN produced two sources on the record accusing Newton's father, Cecil, of clear NCAA violations, the school officially changed its position on Newton's status to "no comment."
As of Friday afternoon, then, we don't know if Newton will be in the lineup as Auburn attempts to lock up the SEC West title, or if he's potentially breaking NCAA rules if he is. We do know that the NCAA is conducting an ongoing investigation that now includes interviews with at least two of the five people who have implicated the Newtons in a play-for-play scheme in the press. We can be pretty certain that, if corroborated and accepted by the NCAA, that scheme would almost render the current Heisman frontrunner ineligible. We know the FBI is involved, and that some sports betting sites are spooked enough by the smoke to remove both the line for the Auburn-Georgia game and Heisman Trophy odds.
And that's about it. Based on the web of rapid-fire reporting over the last week, it's fair to say at this point that the Tigers have two choices: a) Sit Newton out of caution, or b) Forge ahead behind their star and deal with the consequences (if there are any) later. At some point, the NCAA may politely suggest that it would be a good idea for Newton to sit. But it's not going to sweep in and chain anyone to the bench. Once a player is initially cleared upon enrollment, eligibility questions typically fall to the school. The NCAA confronts violations after the fact, and only at the end of a formal investigation – a months-long process that, in this case, likely won't be wrapped in time to keep Newton out of the BCS Championship Game in January, much less the SEC Championship Game that would punch the Tigers' ticket there.
If Auburn is determined to keep Newton on the field through the end of the season – whether it actually believes he's in the clear or is just willing to roll the dice – it's only delaying the fallout until after the trophies have been awarded. For Auburn that may be a risk worth taking. But what about the people who hand out the trophies?
Goodhearted, justice-loving Americans that they are, most of the voters responsible for selecting both the teams that play for the BCS championship and the winner of the Heisman Trophy seem officially content to presume that Newton is innocent until proven guilty. As long as he's on the field, he's eligible, and he and his team are eligible for all of the usual rewards that come with their performance on the field. The one outcome everyone can agree is unacceptable is to punish a player and team that haven't been handed a guilty verdict by the only relevant jury, the NCAA.
If Auburn keeps winning with Newton on the field, though, the same voters will be forced to square that sense of justice with the nagging suspicion that the player and team they're anointing as the most outstanding in the nation are not only corrupt, but may eventually face having the hardware declaring their most outstanding status revoked. What happens if Newton's status remains unresolved on Dec. 5, when final ballots are due for the Heisman and the polls that determine the two teams that play for the national title on Jan. 10 are due? What if the final BCS Championship vote comes down to undefeated Boise State or TCU on one hand and a more deserving but potentially tainted Auburn outfit on the other? What happens if Auburn is elevated into the title game and Newton is declared ineligible to play over the subsequent month between the vote and the game itself?
As it stands, in lieu of more definitive evidence, an unlikely official verdict or an even more unlikely admission of guilt, it looks like enough voters are willing to swallow their doubts to make Newton the Heisman winner and send Auburn on to the championship game if the Tigers run the table. At least there's a precedent now for "correcting" the record if the system breaks against Newton later; the implications of withholding votes if he's exonerated are too dire to risk.
But they'll feel slimy about it. And college football will look slimy – even more so than it already does – when its grandest stages are dominated by a player most of America suspects of violating one of the sport's most fundamental rules. Today, photos of Reggie Bush posing with the Heisman in 2005 and USC celebrating the BCS championship a year earlier exist in a kind of ironic limbo, now that those moments have been officially classified as ill-gotten gains and retrospectively thrust down the collective memory hole. Imagine the same queasy feeling across the country as Newton takes the podium in New York City, or hoists the crystal football in Arizona, as those moments unfold. The historical verdict is still too murky and far away to predict, but on a gut level, Cam Newton's continued presence in Auburn victories could be sending the 2010 season toward one of the most unsettling denouements college football has ever seen.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.