Whether Cam Newton gets suspended by the NCAA, or he continues to play and Auburn wins the National Championship two months from now, the damage has been done.
The furor that's emerged over Newton's eligibility has already brought out the worst in us, exposing the dark side of maybe the most purely jubilant sport in the universe. It's sad, because really, the game itself is like nothing you'll find anywhere else in sports. The fans, the food, the celebration—it all fits so perfectly next to college football, a sport full of mind-bending trickery, eye-popping athleticism, show-stopping cheerleaders, heart-stopping endings, all of producing a flurry life-defining memories.
That sounds like hyperbole, but I'll always remember exactly where I was when Texas beat USC. When Ed Reed saved Miami against Boston College. When USC snuck past Notre Dame as time expired in 2005. When Boise State fooled Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Or when Cam Newton single-handedly destroyed LSU's defense on this run three weeks ago. And it all happens against a vivid backdrop of familiar faces and festive traditions that make it that much more irresistible.
At a bare minimum, college football gives us vast spectrum of colors and characters and shapes and sounds that just don't exist in any other corner of the sports universe. Whether it's the sound of Verne Lundquist on a Saturday afternoon, the charm of Les Miles' transparent lunacy, or the hypnotic sound bytes from insanely biased fans that call in to radio shows like Paul Finebaum's, it's all something to cherish.
But then, looking at the Cam Newton ordeal, watching this all unfold, it's been hard to reconcile the game we love with the people that bring it to us. First, a source says a different source allegedly sought payment in exchange for Newton's commitment this past year, and next thing you know, reporters are shaking every bush from from Gainesville to Starkville to try and dig up something that might incriminate a 21 year-old kid.
Next thing you know, we're ignoring privacy laws to prove that a college kid cheated on a term paper. Next thing you know, we hear the FBI is getting involved. Next thing you know, ESPN's quoting off-the-record sources quoting a kid's father who reportedly said that recruiters should talk to yet another source—four degrees of separation from the college athlete at this point--and that somehow makes the case against Newton more convincing.
Next thing you know, CBS' SEC halftime show becomes a soliloquy about integrity, with Spencer Tillman talking of a father selling his son. "This is so disappointing to me," he said. "Sport merely reflects what's going on in society ... And we're losing our moral compass."
...And here we are. Pretending this doesn't happen all the time, pretending that it shouldn't happen at all, and waxing poetic about some grand ideal that doesn't (and shouldn't) exist anywhere else in America. It's the one aspect of this eccentric little world that's not charming in the least. It's cruel and exploitative. But most of all, the attitude of the media is just insulting.
Basically, they've taken word-of-mouth testimony from transparently shaky sources and used that as an excuse to execute a witch hunt against the most famous player in college football. And that would be fine, but not when you consider how many rumors these guys hear every day about this guy who took that, or that guy who took this. The rumors are everywhere, and completely believable.
For instance, about six months ago, a source told me that in 2008, Tyreke Evans took $50,000 to commit to Memphis. A day later, according to the source, a man from the University of Memphis showed up at his door with a list of things that Evans couldn't spend the money on. No jewelry. No TVs. No cars. No rims. These sort of things. Apparently, the list is standard issue for all of the players that are "taken care of" in this way.
The same source told me that he heard from another source that Julio Jones, the superstar receiver from Alabama, had taken $80,000 to commit to the Tide. "Everybody gets paid," he explained.
The whole thing just spits in the face of what college sports are supposed to be about. It makes me sick, really. And you know wh—wait, what? You want to know more about my source? You want proof that those guys took something? You want facts, names, and bank statements?
But... But... Haven't we spent the past five days convicting Cam Newton with circumstantial evidence and second-hand, anonymous sourcing? Hold on a second. Let's check ESPN:
Prior to [Cam] Newton's commitment to Auburn, one of the recruiters said Cecil Newton told him it would take "more than a scholarship" to bring his son to Mississippi State, a request the source said the school would not meet. Cecil Newton also referred the recruiter to a third person who would provide more specifics, the source said.
Sources ... off-the-record requests ... third parties with more specifics ... Isn't this how the game is played? What makes the Tyreke story any less legitimate than ESPN's? What if I told you my source was a professional athlete? Would that make a difference?
My "reporting" here is as ambiguous and inconclusive as anything that's been said over the past 10 days about Cam Newton. But if I worked for ESPN or the New York Times, maybe my word would be enough. Even the guys in Blue Chips did more legwork to fill in the backstory.
Indeed, if we're going to talk about why Cam Newton embodies everything that's wrong with college sports, we need to say this up front: More damning than any evidence against Newton is the blatant hypocrisy we've seen from the mainstream media. For instance, back in August, when a young reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times cited "a reliable source" suggesting John Calipari (Tyreke Evans' old coach) paid $200,000 to a new recruit, it prompted members of the college basketball establishment to start crowing about journalism:
Once upon a time, there was this thing called journalism ... If someone had actual proof a high school recruit had been bought, wouldn't that reporter want to place said info in the first few graffs? - Mike Decourcy
You can't just throw out rumors and accusations without any facts. If that were the case, I'd be writing them all day long. My guess is that part of the Chicago Sun-Times story will be removed within the hour. - Jeff Goodman
But when different outlets build a report around the off-the-record testimony of anonymous sources at a school that Cam Newton rejected—exactly what happened with the Calipari story above—apparently we all need to take a closer look. And suddenly, instead of journalism's soul, we're focused on that of the SEC.
It's indicative of the double-standard that underpins this entire discussion. When it comes to policing college athletics, the NCAA is bad enough. But its symbiotic, sniveling national media deserves just as much blame for any hypocrisy here.
Basically, depending on the source, they go back and forth between "don't ask don't tell" and "shoot first, ask questions later." And for the past week, for some reason, everyone decided that Cam Newton's reputation and character needed to get assassinated.
I wouldn't have the gall to call my Tyreke Evans news anything other than exactly what is—a rumor. Until there's proof, it's nothing more than a conversation starter at cocktail parties. But then, that's me. With some college sports journalists, the audacity of the NCAA's hypocrisy has trickled down to their level. And that's how someone like Cam Newton can get crucified without a shred of proof. It's cruel, insulting, and horribly exploitative.
And Spencer Tillman? The CBS talking head expressing shock and dismay over the Cam Newton scandal? His college team, Oklahoma, was infamous for its corruption, crime, and scores of scandals that ultimately led to NCAA probation three years after Tillman won a National Title. How can somebody so obviously versed in the underbelly of the NCAA get sanctimonious about a kid getting paid, or a father looking out for his family? The audacity knows no bounds.
Now, speaking of boundless, audacious hypocrisy ... Let's move on the NCAA!
While the vultures swarmed around Cam Newton last week, the NCAA quietly suspended Kentucky freshman Enes Kanter, explaining in a press release, "Kanter played three seasons with the Turkish sport club Fenerbahce from 2006-07 to 2008-09. Although he competed primarily for the club’s under-18 junior team, he did compete on the club’s senior team in 2008-09. According to facts agreed to by the university and the NCAA Eligibility Center, Kanter received $33,033 more than his expenses for the 2008-09 season."
As NCAA Spokesman Kevin Lennon said, "the consequences of receiving payments above his actual expenses is not compatible with the collegiate model of sports that our members have developed."
Indeed, in the same sport that inked a television contract worth 10.8 billion dollars just a few months ago, $33,000 will knock you out of the game. Even if you grew up in Turkey, far removed from the NCAA's jurisdiction, where only real laws matter. Even if your coach makes as much as $50,000 to give a speech, $33,000 is just not compatible with the collegiate model.
Welcome to the life of Enes Kanter and any other big time college athlete. In college football, it's no different. Should Cam Newton and the $600,000 in 2009 for ... doing what, exactly?make the BCS Title Game, there's a $9 million payout that gets divided among SEC schools. When Alabama won the 2009 National Championship, $1.3 million was distributed among its coaching staff. The money doesn't stop there, of course. The director of this year's title game, John Junker, netted
Didn't the athletes sell the game for Junker?
Didn't Alabama's athletes win the national title for their coaches?
Ah, but that's the beauty of college football and college basketball, the only Big Businesses in the world that operate on the strength of completely free labor. It's supply-and-demand economics, where the players supply everything for free, and the demand gets bigger every year. There will be 73,000 tickets at this year's title game, and not one will be on sale to the public. Schools will spend a small fortune buying up their share, with the rest to be distributed among corporate sponsors.
Because the NCAA has "friends of the program" too, ready to slip them cash to feel like part of the team. But when someone like John Junker is accepting free money, it's called good business, and he gets a raise on the $600,000 salary that makes no sense to begin with.
When you break down the model, as Bloomberg explains—you know, an outlet used to covering actual businesses that operate under rational economics—Cam Newton is a bargain:
Check out the Auburn Web site. Ever dream of having your name on an Auburn football locker, the school asks. You can. For a $10,000 donation your name will be engraved on a stainless steel plaque at the top of the locker. Can’t you just see all those fans, basking in the euphoria of a national title, reaching for their credit cards?
Suddenly $200,000 doesn’t seem like much for a quarterback with the goods to pilot an undefeated team.
So if Cam Newton took money to play at Auburn, then good for him. He should have asked for more. Superstar college athletes, particularly football stars, have no idea whether they'll one day make it to the pros to earn the payday that changes their family's life. Just as often, a big time recruit like Marcus Dupree can fall victim to injuries that defer the dream for good.
If you're a big time recruit, it would be insane not to exploit whatever leverage you might have. Lord knows, if a recruit pans out as expected, schools and networks and sponsors will return the favor:
It's all a business. With shiny logos and futuristic graphics and pockets deeper than you could possibly imagine. But remember... It all hinges on the shiny smile of an unpaid amateur.
Looking at the Cam Newton investigation, you might say, "Where there's this much smoke, there's probably fire." And that's fine. Cam Newton probably took money to play football in the SEC. But if he did, he's definitely not the only one. And when it comes to looking for the "fire" in college sports, you have to remember, there is smoke EVERYWHERE. This is college sports, where cheating has gone on for sixty years. But the NCAA and its attendant media would rather ignore the forest and focus on the trees. So amidst all the smoke, the burning bush goes ignored.
That's how, instead of anything resembling enlightenment, we get stuck submitting to the NCAA's dark ages-ideals, bowing at the foot of false prophets who make money hand over fist selling this stuff to the masses, all while exploiting some fetishized ideal of an era in amateurism that never existed, asking us to believe that it makes perfect sense for athletes to generate billions and win nothing in return.
Of course, a religion can't have a "Good" without establishing "Evil", so along the way, it becomes advantageous for the religion to turn someone like Cam Newton or his father into a villain. Indeed, in the same sport that holds Bear Bryant as a God, even as he paid players and exploited the system at every turn, it somehow has become okay to look at Reggie Bush or Cam Newton as cancerous.
See, when you break it down in abstract terms, the NCAA and the people abetting its policies have a lot in common with some of the worst, most manipulative religions and dictatorships we've ever seen. The NCAA isn't Al-Qaeda, but it's an institution founded on exploitation that perpetrates itself with alternating doses of audacious rationalization and moral zealotry. They thrive by indoctrinating teenagers too naive to know better with backwards ideology too entrenched to question, with propagandist spokesman from the media, ready to pounce at the first hint of dissent.
So... Put it this way. Among governing bodies, the NCAA's more Al-Qaeda than All-America. And the media? The people that know the truth and ignore all this in favor of prosecuting Cam Newton? These people are aiding and abetting the backwards ideologues behind it all.
Regardless of whether the NCAA suspends Cam Newton or his conviction remains confined to the media, all of it perpetuates the same perverse logic, and it's all just sad. College football is so great in so many different ways, but then there's this dark side. And when it's exposed for what it is—as happens every few years—rather than point fingers at the relatively anonymous bureaucrats and journalists upholding this sham of a system, we point toward people like Reggie Bush, or John Calipari, or anyone else alleged to have skirted the rules of the NCAA's backward religion.
And now everyone's pointing at Cam and Cecil Newton, using the sermon of some snake like John Bond as an excuse to demonize the only folks here who dared exercise common sense. They've done the same to Enes Kanter, who might have carried Kentucky to the Final Four and a giant pile of cash. Same with A.J. Green, the Georgia superstar that was suspended for selling his jersey. The same jersey of which Georgia sells eight different versions, with profits going to the NCAA, the school, and Nike.
The really sad thing about people blinded by the NCAA's rhetoric and disappointed in Cam Newton is that Spencer Tillman is right. All of this is reflection of society's values. A free market society where exceptional talent gets rewarded, parents fight for the rights of their kids, and hard work prospers. Indeed, it seems obvious that someone like Cam Newton should command a commission on the profits he's made for Auburn and the SEC this season. But then... That's just the point.
For all the purity of college sports' appeal, among the NCAA dictators and all the media, sponsors, and networks professionally invested in selling it to us, not unlike a cult, there's only one rule that everyone really follows: Common sense can't win.