Ettinger: NCAA putting its mouth where the money is

So Cam Newton is a national champion. Kudos to him, really. It’s an incredible accomplishment and one that will stay with him for the rest of his life.

Sports media is doing its part by showering him with well-deserved accolades. This is a big win for Cam, a big win for Gene Chizik and a big win for Auburn. The program hadn’t won a championship in 53 years, and I can’t think of a more talented star to deliver it.

Sadly, this victory will always be tainted. People may not be talking about it right now — in the warm afterglow of such an achievement, it’s admirable that we’re able to look past these grievances — but people were talking about it before and they’ll certainly be talking about it in the future. The fact remains that Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers probably did violate a number of important NCAA bylaws during his high-profile recruitment.

That said, I’m willing to give Cam a pass on this one. Do I believe his father, Cecil, was working in secret, keeping his son sheltered from repeated efforts to trade a commitment for cash? No. And I think you’d be a fool to agree with the NCAA’s logic that Cecil was operating behind Cam’s back. Anonymous sources have gone so far as to reveal text messages from Cam to Mississippi State boosters admitting that “the money was too much.” But from a judgmental standpoint, I can’t really blame the young star. Cam has made clear that he has immense respect for his father, and I don’t fault him for not speaking up or blowing the whistle. We have to remember that this was his father, and ethics often get tangled when family are involved. It’s not as if Cam himself was selling his services.

I’m going to go out on a limb and give a pass to his father as well. Yes, he did solicit funds in return for his son’s college placement. That’s clearly both a legal and moral infraction. But the story goes that the man did so in order to save his church (he is a pastor) from bankruptcy, and I have trouble coming out hard against that. Beyond that, I don’t think people realize how difficult it can be for anyone, even a father, to be thrust in the national spotlight. His son was an instant sensation and was the hottest quarterback commodity that recruiting season. It was pretty simple — he responded as any entrepreneur might, in this case with an allegedly charitable intention. It was a bad idea in every sense, but my heart is still full from the holiday season and I’m willing to cut Mr. Newton some slack.

Unfortunately, such good grace cannot be extended to the NCAA. College football’s governing body showed once again why they have turned into the most pathetic institution in American sports. On Nov. 29, 2010, the quarterback was officially suspended by Auburn University. However, just two days later, the NCAA ceremoniously reinstated him — just in time for the SEC Championship Game. NCAA officials defended the decision, saying there was no evidence that Cam had been aware of his father’s dealings. Cecil was denied access to future Auburn sporting events, but Cam’s name was cleared. And the rest is history.

More than anything, I’m upset by the inconsistency of the NCAA’s decision-making process. Earlier in 2010, the NCAA announced major sanctions against USC on the grounds that star running back Reggie Bush had received inappropriate gifts in 2006. I believe that much is true. But USC was also slammed for allegations that his family had received gifts and rumors that they had engaged in inappropriate conversations with potential agents. In light of the Newton ruling, this punishment worries me. USC Athletic Director Pat Haden feels the same way: “In the Reggie Bush case, when the parent [did] something inappropriate the kid and the school suffered.”

These rulings, which seem arbitrary to begin with, would appear to be disgracefully opportunistic. Slamming USC and Bush was all too easy. USC had to vacate some of its wins from 2005 and 2006 and Reggie Bush had to return his Heisman Trophy (although this sanction was actually imposed by the trophy’s trust). For the NCAA, however, a few slashes in the record books are virtually costless. True, USC did lose 30 scholarships and bowl eligibility, but the program had hit a lull anyway (i.e. wasn’t bringing in its traditional revenues for the league). Meanwhile, Reggie Bush is safely earning millions for the now-eliminated Saints, Pete Carroll is laughing his way into a playoff game against Atlanta and Lane Kiffin is left with a mess on his hands. In the end, these sanctions were an extremely low-cost way to come out strongly against improper benefits — despite the fact that the NCAA’s soft stance against them perpetuated the practice in the first place.

The NCAA’s sanctions against Ohio State fit the same bill. On Dec. 23, the NCAA suspended quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four others for trading autographs for tattoos. Tattoos! They’ll each miss five games at the start of 2011. The suspensions won’t occur until after Ohio State’s lucrative Sugar Bowl victory: another low-cost way to make a hollow statement.

When it came to Newton and Auburn, however, things were markedly different. Imagine the embarrassment should Newton be forced to miss the championship or Auburn forfeit its wins. Imagine the nightmare that would ensue for the NCAA if third-ranked non-BCS TCU leapfrogged its way into a national championship. Most importantly, imagine how much money the NCAA would lose. This is the key. Sadly, high-profile bowl games are the lifeblood of college football’s finances. That is why the league’s governance still hasn’t dumped the ludicrous BCS system in favor of a playoff. It’s also why they turned a blind eye to an obvious transgression here.

The NCAA’s inconsistency is sad. It’s immature. It’s profit-driven. Worst of all, it’s embarrassingly transparent. When the Tigers took the field against Oregon, I was rooting for them — not because I have any affection for Auburn but because I can’t wait for the league to have another mess on its hands when people are slowly reminded that the team’s best player broke the rules. My guess is that the NCAA will wait four years and then break out their erasers.

John Ettinger is a junior in Saybrook College.

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