In ruling Cam Newton eligible to play in the SEC Championship Game, the NCAA is making one thing clear: nothing is ever as it seems with the NCAA, because the NCAA plays by its own rules and no one else's.
The NCAA ruled that Newton was the subject of a violation of amateurism rules on Monday, leading Auburn to declare him ineligible. That violation, quoting from the NCAA's statement:
According to facts of the case agreed upon by Auburn University and the NCAA enforcement staff, the student-athlete’s father and an owner of a scouting service 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.
So Cam Newton's father, Cecil Newton, and "an owner of a scouting service," Kenny Rogers, tried to sell Cam Newton as a football player. That's a violation according to both logic and the NCAA. It's documented by evidence and was communicated to Auburn, which responded by ruling Newton ineligible. That was the ending most expected for this story when the news of Newton's recruitment dribbled out.
By reinstating him, the NCAA has spun a typically illogical twist.
According to a decision made today by the NCAA student-athlete reinstatement staff, Newton is eligible to play, which means he can. That decision seems to be based on the SEC and NCAA deciding that Cam Newton was not at all aware of his father's scheming with Rogers, and, consequently, isn't blame for what they regard as despicable, intolerable conduct.
"The conduct of Cam Newton’s father and the involved individual is unacceptable and has no place in the SEC or in intercollegiate athletics," said Mike Slive, Southeastern Conference Commissioner. "The actions taken by Auburn University and Mississippi State University make it clear this behavior will not be tolerated in the SEC."
"Our members have established rules for a fair and equal recruitment of student-athletes, as well as to promote integrity in the recruiting process," said Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president for academic and membership affairs. "In determining how a violation impacts a student-athlete’s eligibility, we must consider the young person’s responsibility. Based on the information available to the reinstatement staff at this time, we do not have sufficient evidence that Cam Newton or anyone from Auburn was aware of this activity, which led to his reinstatement. From a student-athlete reinstatement perspective, Auburn University met its obligation under NCAA bylaw 14.11.1. Under this threshold, the student-athlete has not participated while ineligible."
Fortunately for Auburn, Cecil Newton was never going to suit up to play, so all this bloviating about his "unacceptable" conduct is really just a wag of the finger at an inconsequential and convenient villain. And Cam Newton is free to continue on his path to a Heisman Trophy and possible SEC Championship Game and BCS National Championship Game wins because his father did dirty work — at least, and possibly at most, hunting for pay for his child's services — without his knowledge.
Put aside the leaps of faith it takes to assume that a father who helped his son transfer from Florida to Blinn College — Cecil Newton was the person who told the world his son was transferring from Florida back in 2009, of course — would not keep his son in the loop about a possible pay-for-play scheme and that the son would not have even unintentionally become aware of even a hint of this. Those are the leaps the NCAA requires us to take right now, and we have to treat them as fact to accept that Cam Newton is eligible.
Treating Newton as eligible, though, also leads us to conclude that if a representative of a college athlete discusses selling the athlete's services and gets caught, it still won't affect the athlete's eligibility, as long as the athlete doesn't know. That doesn't open a can of worms; it sets the stage for a field of snakes much better at gaming the system than Cecil Newton and Kenny Rogers.
If a parent asking about whether a child can get paid is a crime that brings no punishment, why, other than basic dignity and internal codes of ethics, wouldn't every parent ask? If a school can be in proximity of an NCAA rules violation like Auburn was, rule a player ineligible like Auburn did, get the player reinstated like Auburn has — and, most importantly, make millions off of a player with no apparent financial consequences like Auburn is — why wouldn't every school take chances on enormously gifted and blithely unaware players like Cam Newton, shady parents and hangers-on be damned?
And if the NCAA can acknowledge wrongdoing and do nothing about it, keeping the cash moving without interruption, why wouldn't it keep slapping the wrists of people who will never see the field of play, reprimanding them for having the temerity to ask for a couple hundred thousand dollars from an institution that makes millions in an industry that makes billions? (If money had changed hands, and the NCAA knew, wouldn't Newton have been ruled ineligible, and permanently, a split-second after it was proven?)
The NCAA is positioning itself to give Newton and Auburn a chance to finish a season that will bring untold glories and riches to the school, then decree that it didn't happen after a more thorough investigation. If it does find enough evidence to declare Newton ineligible and Auburn's season invalid, it should also be prepared to find ways to strip every body that made money off of Newton this fall of those earnings, and refund every consumer who spent time and money watching a mirage work magic on grassy fields this fall. After all, that would be the right thing to do.
And if that doesn't happen? Well, Newton and Auburn have beaten teams from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee this fall. It might be worth writing to the Congresspeople of those states to ask if the non-profit status of the NCAA is worth revisiting after one of the most galling cases of fraud in the history of a billion-dollar business.
After all, that's the logical thing to do.