Pity the sports columnist who reaches for sanctimony in the Gomorrah of college football. Two voters for the 2010 Heisman Trophy, the sport’s top award, have announced that they won’t vote for Auburn quarterback Cam Newton because of their moral qualms about Newton’s "integrity." Their names are Mike Bianchi and Michael Bradley and they are profiles in hypocrisy. Bianchi and Bradley have decided to publicly shun Newton even though he has had by far the best season in the sport. Newton led the South Eastern Conference in rushing from the quarterback position and became the second player in NCAA history to throw and run for twenty touchdowns, all while leading Auburn to a perfect record.
As Bianchi sniffed from his column in the Orlando Sentinel:
Here we have Cam Newton, a player who left the University of Florida amid allegations of academic fraud and after he was found with a stolen laptop computer and threw it out the window when police arrived; a player whose recruitment is being investigated by the NCAA and the FBI; a player whose father Cecil, according to the NCAA, tried to sell his son’s services to the highest bidder (but, um, Cam supposedly knew nothing about it.). If Newton wins the Heisman, the trophy should be recast in honor of Cam’s dad. The guy on top of trophy shouldn’t have his arm out; he should have his hand out.
This is rich coming from Mike Bianchi, who has proven himself over the years to be a proud human bidet for Orlando Magic owner Dick DeVos. When the multibillionaire DeVos took over $400 million in public funds for the Magic’s new arena, Bianchi wasn’t blasting DeVos for "having his hand out." Instead he called it a "magical sign of the times." Apparently what’s magical for the owner’s box becomes graft when performed by the rabble on the field. The difference is that Newton has actually been cleared by the NCAA of wrongdoing while DeVos fleeced Florida in full view of the populace.
But apparently the "integrity" of the Heisman trophy demands that Newton be punished for even the hint of impropriety. These writers are actually preaching that they must protect the integrity of an award that’s been won by players from an array of schools—Miami, Nebraska, Oklahoma, USC—that have greased more palms than the US Chamber of Commerce. As sportswriter Kent Sterling wrote, "College athletics has been rife with corruption for as long as big crowds have paid to watch. I doubt there are ten Heisman Trophy winners who didn’t get more than tuition and room and board, and most probably got a hell of a lot more than that."
But even if Newton showed up at Auburn wearing a jockstrap sewed together with hundred-dollar bills, so what? The very structure of NCAA football has bred more malfeasance than George and Barbara Bush. Cam Newton, by leading Auburn to the national title game will be making his conference, the SEC, more than $18 million. His school Auburn will be selling out of "authentic" jerseys emblazoned with his name. His coach Gene Chizik, who makes a base salary of $2.1 million, gets a $500,000 bonus for making it to the big dance. Boosters will open their checkbooks to support the program. Cam Newton? He is just hoping he doesn’t get injured.
This is madness. We’d do well to remember the words of Walter Byers, the executive director of the NCAA from 1952 to 1987, who said to writer Steve Wulf, "The coaches own the athletes’ feet, the colleges own the athletes’ bodies, and the supervisors retain the large rewards. That reflects a neo-plantation mentality on the campuses." Byers believed that "the wheel of fortune is badly unbalanced in favor of the overseers and against the players."
Since Byers’s time, the money and the stakes have just grown higher. Now Division I college football has become like a big dice game. If your team does well, everyone gets paid. If it falters, good luck keeping the lights on especially in these tough economic times. As the Knight Commission of College Presidents reported last October, the twenty-five top football schools had revenues, on average, of $3.9 million. The other ninety-four schools ran deficits averaging $9.9 million.
"We’ve reached an indefensible, unsustainable situation," said commission co-chair William Kirwan. It makes landing—and keeping happy—players of Newton’s caliber the most almighty imperative. It also means scapegoating the Cam Newtons of the world to save the illusion of student athletics and the profits of Byers’s "neo-plantation." The situation reminds me of a famous phrase about the US criminal justice system: it captures the minnows while the whales go free. NCAA football is one whale that rots from the head.