Cam Newton earned his Heisman; how long he will keep it will be another story. His legacy remains cloudy and complicated in light of the universally reviled decision of the NCAA to award him eligibility. At the same time the NCAA acknowledged that his father had put him up for bid to attend college after leaving Florida and a junior college.
The decision did not have the grandeur of Solomon. It stunned those of us who fear for the NCAA's ability to defend the tarnished integrity of college football and basketball. The corruption that swirls around recruiting and agents for players never ends, and the corrupters always adapt to new regulations. In the war with corrupters the NCAA just declared unilateral disarmament.
Mark Emmert, the new NCAA President, has vowed to proceed with an aggressive defense of NCAA amateurism. He rode the strength of the major penalties against USC as a critical leverage to bring coaches on board around agents. The disaster at North Carolina has reinforced this. Now, this decision to confirm that Newton's father initiated a pay for play scheme, actually an open bidding scheme, and yet permit the son to play unleashes nightmares for everyone. Emmert acknowledges this, as does every coach in the land.
The world of college recruiting resembles the world of nuclear deterrence or what was called MAD theory, Mutually Assured Destruction. As long as I refrain from not doing something irrevocable, you will too because we all know that a mutual war over recruiting will result in annihilation for everyone.
Unlike college basketball with its code of silence around cheating, football coaches aggressively watch and report on each other. Everyone knows that unbridled corruption in a pay for play world would upset the existing balance of power and lead to even more power for fanatic boosters. The boosters would extend their power because they would foot the bill and and concoct the deals because the coaches have to be insulated from knowledge. This new world destroys any incentive for coaches to recruit players based upon character or ability to get educated. It places immense temptation before parents already invested in their sons and relying upon their success to ensure family economic welfare.
No one doubts that the institutional implications of this decision are disastrous for an NCAA aspiring to educate and create championships with integrity. It would be controlled by a black market, dominated by very rich boosters and shady deals. Even the SEC with its continuing history of brown paper bags full of money squirms at the end result.
This demonstrates a total failure of the NCAA eligibility people to understand the implications of its decision for the rest of college sports. Emmert has provided a sort of defense pleading that the NCAA will figure out an agency-based theory to extend its anti-agent issues to recruiting. It could also extend the new rules around basketball recruiting that limit contact and relations with parents or advisors. It has several legal options to extend rules, but must act immediately.
BUT: the Newton decision does have a strong moral foundation. Student welfare has driven NCAA eligibility decisions for the last five years. If Cam Newton did not know that his father was shopping him around; if Cam Newton made his decision to attend Auburn based upon his affinity with the school and coaches; if Auburn did not know about or get involved in the bidding, then Newton honestly has no moral culpability. It makes little sense to impose an Orwellian obligation upon student athletes to investigate the actions of their parents and report on their parents' possible NCAA violations.
We do have to remember that Cam Newton is not a naive 17 year old. He is 22, left Florida after lying about an alleged theft and academic issues. He spent a year in junior college. But the NCAA had no evidence that Newton participated in the scheme, had knowledge of the scheme or had an obligation to monitor or report on his father. He is morally innocent; the NCAA is right to declare him eligible based upon what they presently know. The dilemma lies in the tension between his moral status and the institutional disaster the precedent creates.
Emmert is right. The NCAA Board of Directors must act on emergency legislation. They can extend agency coverage to recruiting or follow the basketball approach. They can require schools to immediately report such contacts with no consequences for the school and they need to extend the analysis based upon implausible ignorance based on the USC precedents. They did the right thing by Newton, but now they must recover from the institutional disaster of doing the right thing.