December 06, 2010
The votes have been counted and the official invitations to New York for Saturday's Heisman Trophy presentation have been extended to four players. Much to the chagrin of voters like Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel and Michael Bradley of the Philadelphia Post, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton is among them.
Bianchi and Bradley both wrote Monday that they'd intentionally snubbed the hands-down favorite on their ballots, following the suggestion of FOX Sports' Thayer Evans a few weeks back, on the grounds that the pay-for-play scandal looming over Newton's head for the last month threatens to stain the pure, white, silken dress of the most prestigious individual honor in sports, etc. Newton may be eligible to play in the eyes of the NCAA and the SEC, for now, but has his performance exhibited the pursuit of excellence with integrity? Do we, the venerable scribes defending the conscience of this great nation, not deserve some measure of the spotlight for our valiant charge to wrest control of the moral high ground?
Regular readers know I'm not the guy to defend any strain of conventional Heisman wisdom. I don't have a vote, but I haven't fully agreed with a Heisman decision in at least a decade, mainly because of the closed-minded herd mentality that inevitably coalesces around the most hyped quarterback or running back on one of the two or three best teams, at the expense of virtually everyone else. I'm the guy who'd rather stump for a defensive tackle, or a safety on a team with a losing record. I thought Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson should have won over Jason White and Troy Smith, respectively, and certainly Vince Young over Reggie Bush. I go out of my way every year to make a case for a handful of hopeless long shots.
So of course nothing would make me happier than signing on to the anti-Cam campaign, if only to strike a small blow against a lazy orthodoxy that excludes the vast majority of quality candidates out of hand. Except, I mean, how? This year – maybe for the first time in the history of the award – it's not only a waste of time to make an argument for anyone else on the field. It's not even conceivable.
That's not because there aren't other quality candidates by conventional standards (of course there are), but because Newton may be the single most dominant player in a generation, at least. Physically, he's a statuesque absurdity with defensive end size and defensive back speed who was pegged by every scout who watched him in high school and later in junior college as a five-star superstar-in-waiting. Statistically, he's the best running back in the SEC, one of the most prolific scorers the conference has ever produced and, after his most dominant effort to date on Saturday, the most efficient passer in major-college history. In the clutch, he's led his team on four second-half comebacks, including the greatest rally in school history against a hated rival that also happened to be the defending national champion and preseason favorite to repeat. His presence alone has turned Auburn from an 8-5 also-ran that struggled to beat Northwestern in the Outback Bowl to the favorite to win the BCS Championship Game. If you tried to conjure an image of the perfect college football player out of thin air, Cam Newton is as close as anyone has ever come to that guy.
The only way that isn't true is if he's somehow morally compromised. And based on the standards of middle-aged sportswriters who could never dream of igniting a bidding war over their talents, he may very well be. No one – including the NCAA, the SEC and Mississippi State – is substantially denying anymore that Newton's father tried to solicit money from Mississippi State during his son's recruitment last year. The failure to uncover evidence that money changed hands, or that Cam was a willing party to the scheme, doesn't mean that it didn't or that he wasn't or that he didn't. The investigation is open. For all I know, Newton is as crooked as his stride is long, and all of the record books will have to be rewritten as the story continues to unfold.
But frankly, I don't know. Not really. Neither does Bianchi, nor Bradley, nor Thayer Evans. And maybe I don't care quite as much about the moral sanctity of an overhyped trophy that's been previously awarded to convicted gamblers, cheats, frauds, armed robbers and lord knows how many racists, philanderers and alcoholics. Newton's closest competition for the award missed the first game of the season because he was arrested for assault in the spring. It's not a Nobel Peace Prize, or a citizenship ribbon. It's an award for playing football.
And we do know, officially speaking, that Newton is still eligible to do that. He may become the only Heisman winner, in fact, who's ever had the NCAA essentially go out of its way to reinforce his standing. As long as he's eligible, he's eligible. If/when that changes, this summer gave us a precedent and assurance that the situation can be dealt with. If it's not punishment enough that his dad will probably be barred from the premises for his son's big night, there's still time to make up a punishment gap for future charges as they unfold. But a preemptive strike can't be taken back.
In the meantime, Newton is the most outstanding player in the country, he's eligible to be the most outstanding player in the country according to the people who make those decisions, and there's no honest way to pretend that he's not. If you can watch Cam Newton play and think "I'm not voting for that guy," seriously, who can you vote for?
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.