‘Pay-for-play’ charges dog Heisman hopeful

Published 10:02 am Saturday, November 13, 2010

No one knows how many more twists the Cam Newton saga still holds. But everyone has a pretty good idea where he will be when it’s over, regardless of how it ends: cashing paychecks in the NFL.

It barely matters whether Auburn’s star quarterback did all the things that have recently been alleged, or none of them. Recruiting violations are the college sports equivalent of a victimless crime. Nobody really gets hurt.

Jim Litke

Universities that get caught red-handed may have to hand back trophies, take down some banners and delete a few pages from the media guide. But if you hooked up the athletic directors at those schools to lie detectors — and for even more fun, the presidents who enable them — all of them would swear it was worth it. So would their fans.

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Championships are a lot rarer than recruiting violations. Win the former and people will tolerate plenty of the latter. The Southeastern Conference is practically a testament to that.

This season hadn’t even begun when word spread of NCAA investigations into “extra benefits” handed out by unscrupulous agents to players at North Carolina and four SEC schools. Alabama coach Nick Saban cluelessly likened those agents to “pimps,” though the only distinction in some cases is whether the players get the benefits once they’re in school or before they arrive.

Coach Gene Chizik angrily pushed back at suggestions that Auburn gave Newton anything beyond a scholarship — “pure garbage,” he labeled them — and there’s no reason so far not to believe him. Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs called it “sad and unfortunate,” and there’s no arguing with that, no matter what happens from here on.

Newton is, by all accounts, a poised, gregarious kid who is making the most of his second chance. He got stalled in the quarterback queue behind Tim Tebow at Florida, then got caught in possession of a stolen laptop his freshman year. The following spring, according to another report, he was facing possible academic expulsion after getting caught cheating three times.

Newton said previously he left Florida and enrolled in Blinn Junior College, where he led the team to a national title in 2009, because Tebow was coming back for his senior year. Either way, he took responsibility for those problems, getting his grades up and taking part in a pretrial program that resulted in the theft charges being dropped.

Newton was right to insist those problems were in the past.

“I’m not going to entertain something that took place not three months, not six months, not a year but two years ago,” he said Tuesday, when asked about the cheating allegations. “I’m not going to sit up here and say anything about it, whether I did or did not do it, because I don’t want to beat a dead horse talking about it.”

Newton spoke calmly, even smiling occasionally as he handled the question. But later Tuesday night, ESPN.com reported that both Newton and his father, Cecil, told Mississippi State recruiters in separate phone calls about what sounded like a pay-for-play scheme. The details, including Newton telling one of them that his father selected Auburn for him because “the money was too much,” have been in the hands of SEC investigators for months.

The Newtons have denied any wrongdoing in the recruitment process. And a source told The Associated Press that an internal review by Auburn officials of phone and e-mail records showed no contact with Kenny Rogers, identified by ESPN.com as the former Mississippi State player who initiated the pay-for-play talks.

“This is a character assassination attempt,” Cecil Newton said earlier Tuesday on a radio show. “Who is going to profit and why are they are going to profit? We sure don’t.”

If that’s true, the Newtons might be the only party in this mess who won’t turn a profit — at least not until Cam Newton decides when to make himself eligible for the NFL draft.

In the meantime, he’s vaulted himself to the top of the Heisman Trophy race and almost single-handedly nudged the Tigers into the national championship picture. And if Newton handles the distractions as capably going forward — beginning Saturday against Georgia — as he has so far, well, few people will remember, let alone care, how Auburn got there.

That was the lesson of Reggie Bush’s stay at USC and what goes on to some degree or other at just about every school that’s running a football factory. Constructing a minor-league system for the NFL has turned out to be a profitable sideline, even if it sometimes means having to hold your nose.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.