I’ll preface this column by pointing out that Newton is an excellent quarterback whose ability to produce while under scrutiny has been impressive. In fact, my complaints have less to do with the fact that he’s able to continue playing than with how we’ve gotten to that point.
What we’ve seen in the wake of Newton’s suspension and subsequent reinstatement is a shattering of NCAA precedent. Until now, ignorance has never been an acceptable excuse of defense. Suddenly, that is no longer the case. Said Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of 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.”
There are several things about that rationale that bother me.
First is the fact that it’s a new approach. In the past, an athlete’s awareness of or complicity in illegal actions had little to no bearing on the outcome of the investigation. The NCAA always took a hard line with regard to violations, even when the athlete was only tangentially involved. There have been other cases that featured a parent breaking rules, but those were handled quite differently from Newton’s. As USC Athletic Director Pat Haden put it,
“I was always told the parent is the child. That’s what we’ve been telling our kids. If the parent does something inappropriate the child suffers the consequences.”
But going against its own established precedent was only one of the NCAA’s blunders in this case. The second thing I find disturbing is that a major violation has resulted in, well, nothing. All parties agree that there has been a blatant disregard for NCAA rules, and that multiple individuals committed serious transgressions. And yet nothing has come of it. I understand that the NCAA’s investigatory process and enforcement process happen on two different timelines, but this has been mismanaged from the start.
NCAA rules state: When a school discovers an NCAA rules violation has occurred, it must declare the student-athlete ineligible and may request that said eligibility be reinstated.
This investigation has been going on for more than a month, and by my reckoning, there was sufficient evidence of a violation weeks ago. Yet Auburn did not declare Newton ineligible until a few days ago. At best, the university took inappropriate liberties with its responsibilities in this matter, and at worst it knowingly violated this rule to keep Cam on the field.
Which leads to the third issue here– the speed with which Newton was reinstated. Newton was declared ineligible, then made eligible again within the span of 24 hours.
Are we expected to believe that a lumbering dinosaur like the NCAA suddenly became capable of rendering an accurate snap decision? Where was this speed of resolution in other cases? This fails the smell test, in my opinion. In fact, it reeks of corruption. If Auburn was an 8-4 team with nothing on the line, would the decision have been handed down as quickly? I doubt it. I won’t go so far as journalist Michael Wilbon, who thinks that the move was aimed at keeping TCU out of the National Championship Game. But neither will I pretend that there’s nothing fishy going on.
The NCAA is merely going through the motions. They are maintaining the appearance of propriety, but nothing about this process has been fair. But that is how this entire process has been handled, on all levels. Consider what SEC Commissioner Mike Slive had to say:
“The conduct of Cam Newton’s father and the involved individual is unacceptable and has no place in the SEC or in intercollegiate athletics. The actions taken by Auburn University and Mississippi State University make it clear this behavior will not be tolerated in the SEC.”
So I would like Commissioner Slive to explain to me how exactly the SEC isn’t tolerating the conduct. Like the NCAA, he’s talking tough to save face. But it’s all lip-service. He’s known about the issue for months. All the spin in the world can’t obscure that fact.
The truth is, we have an extremely high-profile player caught up in a bad situation. It probably isn’t his fault. But the NCAA has never cared about such things before. Instead of handling this according to established precedent, the case has been disposed of in a way that screams preferential treatment. Worse, it opens the floodgates for future violations. The NCAA is essentially saying that a parent can shop his or her child for vast sums of money without that child’s eligibility being called into question.
For an entity that is supposed to be invested in cleaning up its athletics, the decision doesn’t make sense and could be extremely damaging down the road. It is a move that flies in the face of everything that the Association claims it stands for.
I have nothing against Newton, and at the end of the day I think him being eligible means better football for all of us. But we should all object to the way this situation has unfolded.