When allegations came about in November 2010 that Cecil Newton had asked for $180,000 (through an intermediary) from Mississippi State in return for sending his son from Blinn Community College to Starkville, I wanted the NCAA to declare the younger Newton ineligible.
When the allegations broke last week that Johnny Manziel had taken money for signing autographs (lots and lots of autographs), I wanted Manziel to get a clean bill of health to ensure that he will be eligible this season.
And moving from my subjective preferences to my subjective sense of others' opinions, it seems that these two sentiments near the majority opinion, at least among new media writers.
So why do I and others feel this way? In the words of my better half, let’s talk about our feelings:
1. The Aggies are more popular with neutrals.
There is a lot to like about the current iteration of Texas A&M. The Aggies play an entertaining offensive style, one that not only annoys Nick Saban, but also managed to put up 29 points, 23 first downs, and 418 yards on Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Kevin Sumlin is a likable, charismatic figure who started last season answering a series of condescending questions at SEC Media Days about whether his team would be a disaster in the SEC and iced it at 11-2 with a clobbering of Oklahoma. The Aggies went 3-2 in games decided by one score, so they didn’t give off a whiff of being lucky or worse than their record. Lastly, A&M is only in the SEC in the first place because of its arch-rival’s annoying tendency to treat the Big XII as a personal fiefdom – a course of conduct that led T. Boone Pickens to observe that Texas AD DeLoss Dodds "had too many cards and he played every damn one of them." All of that is what makes the Aggies a sympathetic program.
Other than the entertaining offense, 2010 Auburn was not an especially likable team. This was the reputation of Gene Chizik as a head coach when he arrived at Auburn:
So two years later, when his team was 10-0 headed into the Georgia game, there was a sense of total flukery about Auburn and Chizik. How did this shacket-wearing guy with the 5-19 record find himself in this spot? How did his team play six close games and win them all? If Newton was suspended, wouldn't Auburn's finish just feel like regression to the mean? In-season karmic justice?
As it turns out, this feeling proved to be correct. Without Newton, Auburn was lucky to go 8-5 in 2011, winning every close game it played, and then hit rock bottom in 2012 after Chizik decided to get rid of the offensive style that had been integral to the Tigers winning the national title. So score one for mostly subjective feelings about a coach and a program!
2. Manziel's alleged violations are harmless, whereas Auburn's were not.
On a theoretical level, it's possible to see why the NCAA has a rule against players receiving extra benefits as a result of their athletic exploits. But in this particular instance, Manziel allegedly receiving a five-figure sum to sign autographs is harmless and connotes no advantage to Texas A&M on the field.
Manziel's alleged violation has nothing to do with recruitment and the Aggies are no more likely to win a game in the future because of Manziel purportedly receiving money. Furthermore, there's no evidence that Texas A&M had any knowledge of Manziel receiving money for signing autographs, so it's not possible to make the argument that a lax enforcement regime sends an indirect message to recruits that if they come to College Station, they'll get extra benefits. The alleged payments to Manziel would be nothing more than the first freshman Heisman winner capitalizing on his fame.
In contrast, if you believe that someone associated with Auburn (ask Danny Sheridan for that person's identity) paid some or all of Cecil Newton's alleged asking price, then Auburn received a clear advantage on the field for breaking the rules. Auburn was in a recruiting battle with Mississippi State, a program led by Newton's former offensive coordinator at Florida. The Tigers won the recruiting battle and then, as a result of an outstanding offense led by Newton -- Auburn was first in the SEC in yards per play on offense and eighth in yards per play on defense in 2010 -- they were 10-0 when the Newton story broke.
Fans should care about off-field stories when they affect the results on the field. Why do stories about PEDs in baseball get so many clicks? Because the use of banned substances gives some players an added advantage in piling up numbers. Why were the Newton allegations so much more meaningful than the Manziel allegations? Because they dealt with recruiting.
3. Manziel's alleged violations were made on an individual basis, whereas Auburn's were not.
If Johnny Manziel took money to sign autographs, then he is solely responsible for the violations. He might have engaged a friend or two in the scheme, but it's an individual issue.
On the other hand, if Cecil Newton received money from Auburn in return for sending his son to the Plains, then it's fair to assume that there would have been multiple people involved, most likely a combination of boosters with some cooperation, whether tacit or explicit, from one or more coaches (or at least someone in the football office).
Americans find it much easier to dislike institutions than individuals. For instance, we hold Congress in disdain, but we mostly return our individual legislators year after year. We love conspiracy theories involving shadowy organizations. Thus, there is a lot more emotional appeal in imagining that nameless, faceless people associated with Auburn paid a six-figure sum to Cecil Newton than there is in thinking about the tawdry, but unremarkable possibility that Johnny Manziel got a check for signing autographs.
4. Public opinion has turned against the NCAA.
Stewart Mandel nailed this exact point when discussing the different reaction that the Manziel story has received as compared to Tattoogate at Ohio State:
I do think the larger dynamic centers on just how sharply public sentiment toward the NCAA's century-old amateurism policy has turned in a short amount of time. People have long criticized the NCAA for its thick and inflexible rulebook and its seemingly arbitrary punishments against schools. The pay-for-play debate is certainly not new. But criticism has taken on a distinctly different tone over the past couple of years, with an increasing number of high-profile figures like Jay Bilas hammering the subject. In particular, the recent heightened awareness of the Ed O'Bannon case involves the specific issue at hand in the Manziel investigation. I can't pinpoint a specific turning point. It just seems the cumulative effect of all those multibillion-dollar TV deals, gigantic coaching salaries, extravagant football facilities and money-driven realignment moves has finally reached a breaking point: The original moral standing that prohibited college athletes from profiting off their talents now rings increasingly hollow.
This presents a real issue for the NCAA. The organization is being buffeted from all sides. To continue with the political analogies, the NCAA is quickly losing the consent of the governed in that larger schools want greater decision-making power (namely to start paying cost-of-attending sums to athletes) and fans are tired of players being declared ineligible for victimless crimes. The organization could have suspended Cam Newton without a significant backlash if it would have had the evidence to support such a decision. 34 months later, the same is not true with Johnny Manziel.
Mandel also raises the possibility in the Manziel/Terrelle Pryor context that race might have something to do with the differing reactions. On a personal level, I'm confident that this isn't a factor in my response, but it is a question worth considering.
There could be conscious or subconscious assumptions on the part of some people that a white quarterback getting paid a large sum is unsurprising, but a black quarterback (or that black quarterback's father) getting extra benefits offends racial norms. On the other hand, Manziel doesn't conform to the stereotype of white quarterbacks (i.e. he isn't especially tall, he doesn't have a Howitzer for an arm, and he runs frequently). Thus, Manziel/Newton and Manziel/Pryor are not perfect test cases for examining the role of race in stories about alleged extra benefits because there are actually many other issues at play.
What do you think?