"You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your ------- fingers and say, "That's the bad guy." So what that make you? Good? You're not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie... So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you."
These words famously uttered by Al Pacino's character Tony Montana in the movie Scarface would be perfectly suited to come from the mouth of Auburn Tigers quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Cam Newton. Week in and week out, nobody's name has been more frequently disparaged by sports pundits than Newton's has been. Network executives could tell that viewers were tired of the biggest name in college football the past 3 years (Tim Tebow) being praised for being such a good person, so they quickly looked for a villain this season. Sure enough, they were able to find one, and that’s when truth took a backseat to a compelling narrative where the “bad guy” was poised to win.
Without a doubt, Newton’s history at the University of Florida in 2008, when he was a backup to Tebow, makes Newton the ideal bad guy. Newton claims he bought a stolen laptop from someone selling electronics from the trunk of his car, but police claim they heard Newton saying on the phone that he took the laptop. The charges were droped and Newton was ordered into a pretrial diversion program. Because of this, the full truth never came out, and Newton faded from the spotlight as he transferred to Blinn junior college, won the junior college national championship, committed to Auburn and eventually was named Auburn’s starting quarterback in April. When Newton accounted for 357 yards and five touchdowns in his Auburn debut and followed it with consistently incredible performance week in and week out, the college football scene had a superstar who, because of his past, was a lot easier to root against than Tebow ever was.
Those looking to vilify Newton stumbled upon a gold mine in the middle of the season when former Mississippi State football player Kenny Rogers came forward and claimed that he acted as a go-between man for Mississippi State and Newton’s father Cecil. Shortly thereafter, FOXSports’ Thayer Evans published an anonymous source’s claim that Newton left Florida because of an academic cheating scandal. Later in the season, Cecil Newton admitted to Atlanta’s WSBTV that he sought payment for his son’s services, which led Auburn to declare Newton ineligible on November 30th. A day later, the NCAA reinstated his eligibility, ruling that “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.”
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This is when the misinformation campaign really started spreading, and truths were ignored for the sake of maintaining the sense of outrage over Newton’s alleged transgressions. One source from Mississippi State claimed that Newton had said he wanted to play for Mississippi State, but chose Auburn because “the money was too much”. News outlets, especially those on the television, treated the allegations against Newton as if they were fact, instead of carefully examining the claims to determine the likelihood of them being accurate. After Newton won the Heisman, his statement that “my parents do a lot of stuff behind the scenes that goes unnoticed,” was misconstrued by multiple outlets, but in the context of his speech it’s very clear that he is simply thanking his parents for raising him.
Is there a lot of shady business going on with Newton? It’s definitely possible. Has any wrongdoing on his part been proven as a fact? Not at all, and it’s ridiculous that even the most innocuous expression of gratitude towards his parents gets distorted and twisted into a supposed admission of guilt. The theft charges were dropped, so it’s inaccurate to call him a known thief. As far as the academic dishonesty goes, the information is either not true, or was leaked in violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) regulations that govern the disclosure of student records at universities. Under FERPA, a university is absolutely not allowed to disclose a student’s academic information to the media without the student’s express written permission. Therefore, Evans’s source was either lying or in violation of a federal statute, which is a pretty big deal. While Cecil Newton admitted to wrongdoing, the NCAA’s ruling explicitly stated that it viewed Cecil Newton’s actions as separate from those of his son, because no money exchanged hands. In the controversy over Newton being reinstated, very few news outlets bothered to quote the relevant and explanatory parts of the NCAA’s statement regarding the reinstatement of Newton:
When a school discovers an NCAA rules violation has occurred, it must declare the student-athlete ineligible and may request the student-athlete’s eligibility be reinstated. Reinstatement decisions are made by the NCAA national office staff and can include conditions such as withholding from competition and repayment of extra benefits. Newton was reinstated without any conditions.
During the reinstatement process, NCAA staff review each case on its own merits based on the specific facts. Staff decisions are made based on a number of factors including guidelines established by the Division I NCAA Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement, as well as any mitigating factors presented by the university.
Reinstatement decisions are independent of the NCAA enforcement process and typically are made once the facts of the student-athlete’s involvement are determined.
In other words, as soon as it became clear that Cecil Newton had violated NCAA rules, Auburn ruled Cam Newton ineligible and immediately applied to reinstate him, thus forcing the NCAA to make a ruling one way or another regarding Newton’s eligibility. Due to the evidence they had at the time, there was no clear proof that Cam Newton had accepted money or known that his father had asked about a pay-for-play system. For this reason, the NCAA had to declare him eligible, meaning that unless evidence comes out implicating Auburn in the mess, the school or Newton will not face any retroactive stripping of the Heisman or National Championship. Of course, that fact is left out because it ruins the chance to add extra drama to the saga by allowing the question of “will they keep their championship?” to linger. Instead of looking at fixing the BCS, which is profitable for nobody except the companies who run the bowls, or looking at how widespread the pay-for-play concept is actually practiced, network executives would rather keep the ratings up by rehashing the Newton story and repeatedly obfuscating the truth.
Those who rooted against Newton’s Tigers for moral reasons in the championship game were instead rooting for a team whose star player is on probation for violence against a woman. That doesn’t get mentioned, though, because it’s easier to cast Oregon vs. Auburn as a battle of good vs. bad. Lost in this narrative is the opportunity for journalists to acknowledge that the good in college football - the chance to go pro, or win glory as a national champion - is massively outweighed by the bad – players not taking their free educations seriously, and society’s enabling of this system that values athletic skills like throwing a football over life skills like balancing a checkbook. Cam Newton may very well be guilty of everything he’s been accused of, but that doesn’t make any of the other countless problems plaguing the game less serious. In all fairness, the fans of the sport are just as much to blame as the media, because their demand fuels the television ratings that make focusing on Newton so easy and profitable. Most fans would rather ignore the possibility that their favorite college team probably pays their players, or the possibility that USC is arguably the most talented pro football team in California, and would rather just point at Newton and say “that’s the bad guy.”
That’s my problem with the Newton controversy. Almost overnight, Newton became the face of everything that’s wrong with college football. Instead of taking a serious look at the many flaws in college football, it was easier to write an article condemning everybody involved with the Newton story. This easy alternative to serious sports journalism dumbed down college football discussions for an entire season. Thankfully, it should finally be over. Newton will probably declare himself eligible for the draft, and some team in need of a quarterback will see that his rough footwork in the championship game was mostly due to an incredibly slippery turf that caused the entire game to be played sloppily, and even caused an injury on the opening kickoff. Once Newton is drafted, the media will have to drop their torches and pitchforks to commence the search for a new hot-button issue to water down and spoon-feed to the masses. As for Newton, he’ll no longer be under the NCAA’s power, so he can’t be ruled ineligible, and unless he flat-out admits “Auburn paid me to play”, then there’s no way the NCAA will want to endure the embarrassment of making Auburn the second championship-winning team to vacate their wins in the same decade. So for those of you who are still looking to crucify Newton, there’s only one thing you can do:
Say goodnight to the bad guy. - Hank Koebler,IV
Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.
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