12.12.10

Heisman Hypocrisy

When Cam Newton accepted college football’s top trophy, his father was conspicuously absent. Buzz Bissinger, our new sports columnist, salutes a man who dared to take on the system that enriches college sports but screws the players.

During ESPN’s interminable presentation Saturday of the Heisman Trophy to college football’s best player, in which über-sycophant analyst Lee Corso pretty much interviewed anyone who had ever touched a football, the one person who should have been there was not there at all.

That was Cecil Newton. His son is Cam Newton, the spectacular quarterback of Auburn University, who won college football’s most esteemed honor in a landslide vote. Newton’s path to Auburn is rife with stench, but when you throw for 2,589 yards and 28 touchdowns and run for 1,409 yards and 20 more, does it really matter?

Like the Mafia, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, ostensibly there to sanction college sports and keep the game clean, is really in the business of finding fall guys to protect the multimillion-dollar empire. The NCAA doesn’t off potential snitches. It just does its best to make them disappear.

Cecil Newton became that fall guy, so much so that he was basically banned from attending the Heisman ceremony in New York to witness his son’s beatific moment. Both the NCAA and Auburn recently acknowledged that he and a scouting service director named Kenny Rogers, in what was described as a “pay-for-play” deal during the recruiting of Cecil’s son, tried to hit up the potential pimp of Mississippi State University (I’m sorry, I meant the fine academic institution of Mississippi State, perhaps the only school in the United States that Sarah Palin did not attend for an hour).

Newton, working through at least one intermediary, is said to have asked for as much as $180,000 for Cam’s services, according to three former Mississippi State football players that include Rogers himself. As someone who has written about sports for more than two decades, I have a grave problem with that.

Cecil Newton didn’t ask for enough.

The NCAA cannot deal with the reality of the system that it has fostered for decades. It needed a villain. It could not be Auburn, which is undefeated and will face the University of Oregon, also undefeated, in the Bowl Championship Series game on Jan. 10 and has millions of enlightened fans, the same ones who think Medicare isn’t a government program, frothing at the mouth. Not to mention a payout of nearly $20 million that will be divided between the two conferences to which Auburn and Oregon belong. It could not be Cam Newton, the most electrifying player in the land. Without him, the championship game becomes as exciting as Columbia versus Cornell at Columbia. So who?

Anybody who receives a college football or basketball scholarship at a Division One school should be paid at a minimum the value of the scholarships they are getting.

Auburn did declare Newton ineligible at the end of November, pending a ruling by the NCAA after the allegations surfaced. It lasted for a whole day, until the NCAA decided there was insufficient evidence that Cam Newton or Auburn knew what father Cecil was up to. The villain materialized.

When it comes to the major college sports of football and basketball, the relationship between school and player is simple: The school is the pimp, the player the high-priced whore—but without receiving anything close to market value for the spectacular conquests he routinely performs. Players do get college scholarships, about as valuable as President Obama’s vow during his campaign not to extend the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy. In other words, worthless.

When Cam Newton was being recruited, he at one point was leaning toward Mississippi State. Given his prodigious skills and pro quarterback size (he is now 6-6 and weighs 250), he could have generated millions for Mississippi State. Endless telecasts of their games on ESPN and ESPN1 and ESPN2 and ESPN3 all the way up to ESPN20000056. Big-time bowl games.

Cecil Newton knew that, like any father with a kid poised for major college glory knows that. He must have known that Mississippi State was in a position to make a killing off his son while the family itself reaped nothing. He knew that the head coach, if the program was successful because of his son, could move up to the big time, where the salaries go as high as $5 million, not including the country club membership and the annual annuity payment and the bonus for staying for a certain number of years.

Yes, major college football could provide Cam Newton with a shot at the pros. Unless he got hurt, which happens all the time, or the even greater likelihood that he would never make the transition. Being great in college football has no correlation to being great or even mediocre as a professional. Just talk to the thousands who have been squashed like road kill.

So Cecil wanted a piece of the action before his son’s college career ended, and the family deserved a piece of action: Call it an annuity, call it a financial derivative, call it a mortgage-backed security, but don’t buy into the treacle from the NCAA or lazy sportswriters that Cecil Newton somehow impugned the integrity of a game that hasn’t had any integrity since Robert Maynard Hutchins got rid of football at the University of Chicago in 1939, even though the school was in the Big Ten and Jay Berwanger had won the first Heisman Trophy four years earlier.

It’s actually unfair to call Cam Newton a whore. Let’s more accurately call him a slave to a system that is outrageous from any financial, or for that matter, moral perspective. Dozens upon dozens of major colleges, in their obscene obsession over college football and basketball even though it does not add a single thing to the academic experience—except members of the student body shellacking their torsos in school colors—take sickening advantage of their high-profile stars. They fill stadiums and arenas. Jerseys are sold with their names emblazoned on the back, worn by over-painted female fans with breasts that should know better. And yet the players don’t get a cut, at least as far as we know, which we don’t but for the rare example of isolated cases that go public.

The NCAA needs to get off its pedestal of false sanctimony that has become wearisome. Equally sanctimonious sportswriters, scarring the land with their predictable bellows of outrage, should just zip it as well—unless they care more about the pre-game spread in the press dining room and the secret fantasy of a big-time coach calling them by their first name.

Anybody who receives a college football or basketball scholarship at a Division One school should be paid at a minimum the value of the scholarships they are getting. These are not student-athletes. They are athletes plain and simple, and these sports suck up all their air. They should be taken out of the college system altogether and have the same affiliation as employees who work for the university. Why even bother with the pretense of making them go to class? In some cases, they don’t even bother anyway.

Just ask Auburn.

In a marvelous series of articles in 2006, Pete Thamel of The New York Times exposed the fact that 18 players were receiving high grades from a single professor in sociology and criminology courses that required no attendance and little work. How could that happen? Something to do with the team going undefeated and finishing No. 2 in the nation? The university conducted the requisite investigation. It decided the problem was academic, not football.

Yawn…

So I sincerely congratulate Cecil Newton for trying to say no to a system that is deceitful and perpetuates a master-slave relationship that every college president in the United States should be ashamed of, if they weren’t so busy packing their bags for upcoming bowl games and making sure the little beanies still snugly fit.

Cecil Newton is a minister in Georgia, and it is nice to see a minister who uses the teachings of God with practicality—Thou Shall Taketh but not so Fasteth because I Am No Fooleth.

Amen.

Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August . He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.