NCAA decision on Newton opens Pandora’s box

OK, so after all the rumors and reports in the Cam Newton pay-for-play investigation, the NCAA and Auburn have agreed on the following set of facts:

“The student-athlete’s father (Cecil Newton) and an owner of a scouting service (Kenny Rogers) worked together to actively market the student-athlete as a part of a pay-for-play scenario in return for Newton’s commitment to attend college and play football. NCAA rules (Bylaw 12.3.3) do not allow individuals or entities to represent a prospective student-athlete for compensation to a school for an athletic scholarship.”

Developments in this case have been dizzying. Just this week … The NCAA determined Monday that a violation of Newton’s amateur status had occurred. Auburn ruled the quarterback ineligible Tuesday and requested he be reinstated. By Wednesday, the NCAA restored his eligibility because it “does not have sufficient evidence” to prove that Cam Newton knew his father was trying to sell him.

The NCAA determined Monday that a violation of Cam Newton’s amateur status had occurred, but it restored his eligibility on Wednesday.
(Mark Zerof/US Presswire)

So, it’s no big deal. Bylaw 12.3.3 is nothing.

Wait … what?

Cecil Newton tried to get $180,000 to $200,000 for his son to play football and the NCAA said, hey, no problem?

Now that is one heck of a precedent to set. Hey Pandora’s box, see you on signing day.

“That’s the most amazing thing I’ve heard in over four decades of being around college and high school sports,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the retired sneaker czar, hoops middle man and player confidant who admits he’s been around hundreds of major recruiting battles through the years. He’s a longstanding advocate of player rights and was, on some level, overjoyed that the NCAA was shooting itself in the foot.

“The NCAA just gave cover to every middle man in the country,” Vaccaro said. “The kids never know. In all my years, I’ve never heard of a kid being involved in the negotiation. You think they ask? Of course not. Their mom asks. Their coach asks. Their cousin asks. This is crazy.”

Step back from the specifics of how this case involves the best player on the best team heading into the SEC championship game and likely the BCS title game (which Auburn may reach even with a loss Saturday). If you look at it globally, it’s a head-scratcher.

The NCAA just ruled that as long as the player denies he knew anything about being shopped around – even by someone as close as his own father – then there is no penalty. And let’s not give any credit to the NCAA banning Cecil Newton from associating with Mississippi State (why would he anyway?) and allowing just “limited” association with Auburn, a school they’ll leave in the tail lights one minute after his son’s final game. That’s the biggest non-penalty penalty of all time.

At this point, why wouldn’t the parent of every recruit in America ask about getting paid? What’s the harm, right? Just do it behind your son’s back – or at least pretend. You might as well see what’s out there, even if it’s just for the fun of it.

The NCAA has taken one of its better deterrents – a rule that clearly stated no one representing an athlete can even solicit extra benefits – and all but reversed it. They’ve essentially said that you’d be a fool for not soliciting.

“That’s the most messed up ruling I’ve ever heard,” one major college assistant coach said Wednesday. “They can ask every school for money and then someone will bite on it. And then if they get caught for asking they can just say the kid didn’t know.”

Said another major college assistant: “The NCAA could’ve sent a clear message to everyone that this won’t be tolerated. Don’t ask. Don’t suggest. Look what happened to Cam Newton. You don’t want that happening to your son, your player. Instead they said the opposite.

“I can’t even imagine what it will be like. Oh, man.”

Let’s get a couple caveats out of the way. It’s worth repeating the NCAA has not offered any proof that Newton received any extra benefits from any school or that Cecil Newton asked for money from Auburn.

And please note this isn’t a defense of the NCAA structure. I’ve long complained that everyone but the guy wearing the helmet is getting paid. I’ve long pointed out the amateurism rules are little more than cover to maintain college sports’ sweetheart tax-free status.

I believe that Cam Newton is worth far more to a school than 200 grand. I believe he should be allowed professional representation since he’s essentially a walking $50-70 million commodity. I’m with Vaccaro in finding enjoyment in the NCAA’s self-inflicted wound.

I’m glad Cam Newton gets to continue playing football.

That said, if the NCAA is going to continue to pretend it cares about pay for play, how does it provide no deterrent here?

Even if it just sat Newton for one half of the SEC title game, it’d be something. There is now essentially no penalty to asking for money in the recruiting process.

“I don’t want to hear about another player suspended again,” Vaccaro said. “They just took the legs out of all of their rulings. Do they have any idea what they just did?”

Will this extend to conversations with agents? Can the “player didn’t know” precedent eventually include a parent receiving actual money? Where does this end? Lawyers for players could have a field day here.

That’s why this reversal makes so little sense to so many people.

You can argue Cam Newton shouldn’t have to be set up as an example – and I hear you since he’s hardly the only guy who got shopped, let alone sold – but he’s a grown man who had already played major college football when he was being recruited this time. He wasn’t naïve. And the person responsible for causing him to be suspended would be his own father. It’s a neat and tidy case.

In the long term, Newton could return for an Auburn bowl game – or even the second half of the SEC title game. Even with a loss to South Carolina the Tigers could easily argue they deserve a spot in the BCS title game regardless – they have the best résumé and their only setback would be without their star quarterback. They probably don’t have to win Saturday anyway.

Soon enough Newton could still go on and make a fortune in the NFL, which certainly doesn’t care about all of this.

It’s not like the punishment had to be crippling. There had to be some punishment though.

Instead, Cam’s in the clear. The precedent is set on the recruiting trail. And the public’s image of college sports being out-of-control dirty is beautifully reinforced.

The NCAA enforcement staff will continue to investigate this case and if over the coming months, if not years, further improprieties are found, Newton (and Auburn) can be sanctioned. This doesn’t end the possibility of vacated victories.

It just confuses the heck out of college athletics.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Dec 1, 2010