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The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.
That is the first sentence of the mission statement of the Heisman Trust, the organization tasked with administering the Heisman Trophy. Let me go on record saying that if the Heisman Trophy’s goal were to recognize “the best player in college football” the organization would have probably missed more than it has gotten right. Mark Ingram is a great college football player, but for my money, he wasn’t as good in 2009 as a boy named Suh. I am not a fan of the award. I’ve not shed a tear over any Georgia Bulldog’s exclusion from the winner’s circle. I would not trade our Sugar Bowl victory in 2007 for Tim Tebow’s Heisman in the same season. It’s a nice little award with a great tradition. To me, the Heisman doesn’t mean everything. But it still means something.
That’s why if (note the “if”, Auburnistas, and save yourselves ranting time you’ll never get back) the latest allegations regarding Cameron Newton’s time at Florida and his subsequent recruitment are true, and Newton wins the award this year, you’ll know that a large percentage of the voters either haven’t read the above mission statement (a valid possibility) or don’t really care about it (also quite possible). To recap, ESPN’s Joe Schad claims to have sources who were told by Newton’s father, Cecil, that it would take “more than a scholarship” to get his son to go to Mississippi State. Now, that could mean a variety of things. It could mean that the younger Newton wasn’t coming to town unless Starkville got a TCBY. Quality of life is important, and raspberry frozen yogurt with gummy bears is a big quality of life issue. Or it could mean that Newton was troubled that the city was left off Band of Skulls’ U.S. Winter Tour, and would be withholding his commitment until a stop there was added. So take this alleged statement for what it’s worth.
Perhaps the more damning report in Schad’s article is Newton’s supposed tearful phone call to a Mississippi State recruiter that he was going to Auburn because “the money was too much.” It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that someone took money to push Newton to play somewhere without Camasaurus Rex even knowing about it. Allegations of such payments to coaches, family members, teachers, pastors and others are commonplace on the recruiting trail, and have been for years. In all arenas of life, access to decision makers and an ability to influence their decisions has monetary value. In Washington, this is called “lobbying” and is considered a respected profession.
But if money changed hands in exchange for Newton’s signature and he knew about it, even ex post facto, and said nothing, that’s a problem. It means that Newton is not an amateur athlete, and has not been since the deal was done. If that’s the case, Newton is not eligible for the Heisman Trophy. Let’s call it “The Reggie Bush Rule”, then collectively lament the fact that such a precedent exists.
That’s to say nothing of the allegations of academic impropriety from Newton’s time at Florida. I don’t know if Cameron Newton in fact engaged in repeated academic fraud while a student at Florida. I don’t know the full story about how he acquired a laptop computer which he subsequently dropped out of a window upon being visited by University Police. I do know that it should be fairly easy to ask Cam Newton if in fact he had pending student disciplinary proceedings relating to cheating when he left Gainesville, and whether he did in fact attempt to pass off others’ work as his own. Because that seems to indicate a lack of integrity to me. I’m not a Heisman voter. But if I were, and I had the chance, I would ask those questions. Unlike the alleged pay-for-play scenario in which the FBI is now involved, there are no criminal ramifications to a years old cheating allegation, no threat of self-incrimination in a legal proceeding. The voters deserve an answer here.
Cecil Newton for his part did not help that situation by saying of the academic fraud allegations: “I wasn’t there. I cannot confirm or deny. At a time like this, I’m taking a defensive posture.” Really? You haven’t discussed with your son the specifics of the allegations which could have led to his expulsion from college and loss of his SEC football scholarship? The subject’s never come up over dinner? While cleaning the gutters or watching Monday Night Football? Seriously?
Certainly, individual voters are free to cast their ballots as they see fit. It is the Heisman Trust’s charge to mete out ballots to those who can be trusted to uphold the organization’s laudable mandate. If the voters are confident that Cameron Newton meets their individual criteria, so be it. As with the yearly teapot-bound tempests that arise over baseball’s Hall of Fame voting, if a consensus exists that a voter is using unacceptable criteria, take that vote away, don’t criticize how it’s used. You can’t hand a 4 year old a sledgehammer then be shocked when he doesn’t quite know how to swing the thing.
Tony Barnhart, whom I respect immensely, disagrees with me to a point. But he disagrees based upon the pay-for-play allegations, and makes the reasonable point that Cam Newton should not have to pay for Reggie Bush’s sins. I agree. But I have serious qualms about these academic fraud allegations, allegations which Barnhart (who does have a Heisman vote and seems likely to vote for Newton unless something changes) does not address.
Barnhart sees a regional bias against us crazy southern football fans in this story which, quite frankly, I do not. The Reggie Bush fiasco should stand as conclusive proof that the folks at Yahoo Sports and the New York Times don’t care where you play college football. But if you win the sport’s most prestigious award for amateur athletes, one which vows to reward integrity, you should be an amateur, and you should have demonstrated some integrity. Right now, Cameron Newton’s amateur status and his integrity have been called into serious question. That’s unfortunate. But the fact that it’s unfortunate doesn’t mean that we can just ignore it. If Cameron Newton wants to win the Heisman Memorial Trophy he needs to address the allegations against him on both fronts head on. If he doesn’t and the voters turn elsewhere, he has no one to blame but himself.
The purpose of this post is not to say that Cameron Newton should not win the Heisman Trophy. Look, by any of the objective criteria of on-field performance he’s my guy. No other player is more important to his team. No other college football team’s fortunes would be more different with the exclusion of one player’s efforts than Auburn would be with the exclusion of Cam Newton’s. Auburn-Newton=Auburn + (Chris Todd/Brandon Cox)=hoping for the Chik-Fil-A Bowl.
And let me be clear: I have seen no evidence that anyone actually affiliated with Auburn, its athletic department, or coaching staff has done anything improper. I suppose recruiting a guy with question marks about his background might be something, but let’s be honest, Cam Newton’s alleged laptop larceny was not the worst transgression ever ignored in the interest of bigtime college football. And I don’t know that Auburn, or any other school recruiting Newton, had any reason to suspect the cheating charges. So despite the ingrained institutional rivalry between our schools, this is not a “throw Auburn under the bus” post.
It’s not even a “throw Cameron Newton under the bus” post. Because I really want Cameron Newton to be vindicated. I’ve enjoyed watching him play football this season, and I want to be able to root for him in every game this season except the one which will take place this Saturday on the Plains. But if I were a Heisman voter I would need some clarification from Cameron Newton regarding how he has pursued excellence with integrity before I would be willing to vote for him as the 75th winner of the Heisman Memorial Trophy. Given the events of the past week, if he wants the trophy, I think he owes the voters an explanation. It’s up to them to decide if they’re satisfied with it.
I’ll be back tomorrow with Cocktail Thursday. Until then . . .