Cameron Newton's Auburn Fairytale: An SEC Drama Where There's No Feel-Good Story

Zachary OstermanCorrespondent INovember 9, 2010

Whether he's innocent or not, Cameron Newton's legacy will likely always be tarnished by the allegations that have surfaced in the last week.
Whether he's innocent or not, Cameron Newton's legacy will likely always be tarnished by the allegations that have surfaced in the last week.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This is just ugly, and it's ugly for everybody.

It's been five days now since ESPN and the New York Times each released reports indicating that Newton's recruitment by Mississippi State was under NCAA investigation after one former Bulldog player approached an old teammate and suggested that he represented Newton, whose commitment could be bought for something just south of $200,000.

What immediately followed were a slew of opinion-makers doing what they do best.

Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel said that Newton doesn't deserve to win the Heisman Trophy, the award for which he is considered the frontrunner.

Thayer Evans of Fox Sports encouraged voters to steer clear of Newton.

Tony Barnhart, the unofficial dean of college football sportswriting, wondered aloud whether perception—not fact—would cost Newton his Heisman chance one way or the other.

Auburn fans supported Newton, in part by just sort of indiscriminately yelling at Mark Schlabach, one of the ESPN reporters who broke the story.

But now, Evans has chimed in again. Not with opinion, but with hard news: According to this report, Newton was in deep, hot water for multiple academic honesty violations at Florida, and that was his reason for leaving the Gators.

Newton and his father told Sports Illustrated earlier in the season that it was because Tim Tebow decided to return for his senior year, meaning Newton would have had to sit out an entire extra year, and would be left with just one year of eligibility after Tebow graduated.

So now who do we believe? Better still, does it really matter? The party lines are clearly drawn, sides have been taken. Auburn is sticking by its man, come hell or high water, though that water is rising.

But in the bigger picture, what good will actually come of this? Really, at the end of the day, who benefits?

As more sordid allegations attach themselves to Newton, Auburn looks a bit like a desperate lover, willing to bend unsavory facts to fit its own needs and conclusions. It swears that it's done all the necessary homework on Newton, and maybe the university knew about all this before it came out. But especially given Auburn's checkered history with the rules, the Tigers appear on thin ice.

What happens, too, if Auburn is forced by all these revelations to take a serious look back at Newton's eligibility, as Jay Jacobs essentially said it would? Then the Tigers look awfully foolish if they, or anyone else for that matter, find something, anything at all really, that pushes this pot further toward its boiling point.

And what of Florida, Newton's former institution? It was easy to shoot down the rumors that Urban Meyer encouraged Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen and whistle-blower John Bond to go public with the initial approach by Kenny Rogers (the man Bond said came to him with the request for money).

The grades are a different issue. Universities these days are all too fond of "protecting" information from Freedom of Information Act requests by claiming it's shielded from the public view by student privacy laws, as evidenced by a recent lawsuit filed by numerous newspapers against UNC for what the newspapers said was a breach of open records regulations.

But under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, student academic records actually should be protected information and therefore unavailable to the public.

So why, all of the sudden, are Newton's academic transgressions showing up in print? Would they have been released, particularly anonymously, if Florida weren't 6-3 with quarterback issues, or if Auburn weren't 10-0 with Newton leading the race for national player of the year?

Maybe it's not petty, but it looks petty, and as Newton could probably tell you, perception counts for an awful lot these days.

And what of Mississippi State? If Auburn looks like a desperate lover, it's easy to see the Bulldogs playing a more jilted role. It's unlikely there was any real intent behind Bond's going on record with the Times and ESPN, other than simply both had the story and were going to run it with or without Bond's comments. But again, perception is too often reality in this age of instant news and, by extension, instant opinion.

It's also not entirely clear whether Rogers, as a former player, would be considered a booster, and therefore acting improperly either in this supposed relationship with Newton or in asking for money for his commitment. I won't profess to knowing the nuance of this particularly subplot. It might not even be a possibility. But is it a question Mississippi State will want to have to answer? Absolutely not. 

The implications for Newton, particularly as more negative information leaks out, are obvious. Will he lose a chance at the Heisman? Is his feel-good redemption story in pieces by this point? Will the NCAA act quickly in its investigation, hoping to seize on the opportunity to keep tar off of another Heisman Trophy and another national championship.

The Reggie Bush saga was a large black eye, and if there is something illicit behind Newton's wide smile, it would behoove the NCAA to nip it in the bud before Auburn wins a championship it might later have to vacate, or Newton takes home a trophy he might later be encouraged to return.

Finally, whatever the result of this ongoing investigation, the SEC and the NCAA both lose. Newton was the story of the year, a reminder that we can all do something good with a second chance. Now, however we separate fact from fiction when the book is closed, this entire ordeal will hang over Cam Newton probably forever. Anything he accomplishes will be viewed by some with an asterisk.

And what does this say about efforts to clean up high-level college sports?

We thought bringing the long arm of the law down on SMU would put the fear of God into enough people, but then Auburn gets popped not half a decade later. Tennessee rats on Alabama for losing out to the Tide on Albert Means, who was in essence bought by an influential booster. The ensuing punishment wrecks one of the great brands in sports, and it takes the better part of a decade to recover.

And yet, here we are, 10 years on from the Means saga, and we've got the North Carolina debacle and now these Newton allegations. Despite all the talk about cleaning up the game, it's as dirty and sullied as ever.

So where does it end? How does it end? Is anything really gained?

Party lines have been drawn, sides already taken. But in the end, will anyone ever really win?