Considering the standard of incompetence and controversy set by the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in recent years, the 2010-2011 college football season was an awe-inspiring success.
Sure, Texas Christian University advanced through its schedule unscathed, but its signature wins came against Utah and Oregon State, and accordingly, the Horned Frogs’ resume paled in comparison to those of the Oregon Ducks and Auburn Tigers.
Oregon, which began the year ranked No. 11, cemented its contender status after a 52-31 dismantling of then-No. 9 Stanford on Oct. 2. Buoyed by the efforts of its two Heisman hopefuls, quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James, Oregon possessed the requisite makings of national champion and convinced the pollsters of its elite status.
Auburn, No. 23 to start the season, embarked on a storybook journey to the championship game. After 5-7 (2-6 SEC) and 8-5 (3-5 SEC) finishes the last two seasons, the 2010-2011 Tigers returned the once-proud program to national relevance. They posted over 40 points per game in the undisputed toughest conference in the nation behind the efforts of the country’s most exciting player, the embattled Cam Newton.
After being dismissed from the University of Florida after the 2008 season, Newton toiled in the Junior College ranks at Blinn College in Texas before arriving at Auburn as a part of its highly regarded 2010 recruiting class. In the first game against Arkansas State, Newton gained over 350 all-purpose yards and accounted for five touchdowns. He proceeded to lead the country with 51 all-purpose touchdowns (30 passing, 20 rushing, one receiving), to become the third player in FBS history to rush and pass for 20 touchdowns in the same season and the first player in SEC history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season. To top it all off, the 6-foot-6-inch, 250 pound specimen, a man whose skeptics questioned his throwing ability and who seemed built to break quarterbacks, not break quarterbacking records, led the country in passing efficiency (188.2 rating).
The Tositos BCS National Championship Game was billed as having everything necessary for an epic showdown, a 2006 USC vs. Texas type affair: star power, an uncharacteristic consensus top two teams and suspense (nobody knew what to expect when the two offenses, considered the most explosive in the country, took the same field). While Auburn’s 22-19 victory didn’t provide the expected back-and-forth shootout, it contained a wild finish and left college football fans teeming with giddy satisfaction.
However, the honeymoon seems destined to be short-lived.
Lost in the championship game hype were the eligibility issues that have been swirling around Newton ever since allegations surfaced back in November that people close to Newton sought a six-figure payment for his letter of intent on signing day — had Cecil Newton, Cam’s dad, not been spotted unexpectedly on the field after the game, the issue may have completely disappeared from the public’s conscience.
ESPN’s initial coverage of the allegations on Nov. 4 prompted a month of rumors and speculation regarding Newton’s eligibility. On Nov. 30, Auburn suspended Newton, only for him to be inexplicably declared eligible the following day by the NCAA reinstatement division.
The NCAA concluded that Cecil Newton was guilty of shopping his son to prospective football programs, but since Cam was unaware of his father’s efforts, he was to remain unpunished and eligible.
It seems absurd that an athlete’s parents could accept money or other gifts in return for an athletes services without the athlete being held accountable. Recently Reggie Bush was stripped of his 2005 Heisman Trophy and USC forced to vacate its victory in the 2005 FedEx Orange Bowl National Championship game because of improper benefits that Bush, and primarily his immediate family, received from an agent. Pat Haden, USC’s current athletic director, has publicly disagreed with the decision, questioning how Newton could be ruled eligible after Bush had been punished principally on the basis of gifts that his family received.
Exacerbating the confusion, Mississippi State claims to have notified the SEC of the violations in January 2010 shortly after the violations occurred, but no headway seems to have been made into the investigation until the allegations were made public in November.
The SEC asserts that after it was notified by Mississippi State in January, it requested further information from the school, which it didn’t receive until July 2010 due to pressing compliance issues the athletic department had regarding athletes involved in winter sports.
Complicating the issue, it remains unclear when the SEC first notified the NCAA of the allegations. The lack of transparency obscures the suspension/reinstatement fiasco. In this light, it sure looks like a formality, mere lip service to the rules that the NCAA professes to enforce and its members claim to adhere by.
While I would like to avoid the trite accusation that the greedy powers at be are the source of this confusion and potential corruption, it’s impossible to ignore the motives that may be in play. In the 2009-2010 athletic year, the NCAA reported 90 percent ($638,980,000) of its revenue from Television & Marketing Rights Fees and 9 percent ($62,310,000) of its revenue from Championships Revenues.
The NCAA certainly isn’t interested in exposing a scandal of this magnitude and contributing to the questioning of the integrity of college sports as a whole, it just signed a $10.8 billion, 14-year deal with CBS and Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting to televise March Madness beginning in 2011. After a year of violations in college football that included a four-game suspension of its best receiver, Georgia’s A.J. Green, the crippling of a title contender, North Carolina, and a shot at next year’s title chances for one of its perennial contenders, Ohio State—not to mention the eligibility issues that college basketball has dealt with in recent years regarding the likes of superstars Derrick Rose and O.J. Mayo — perhaps the NCAA decided it wasn’t best to dig deeper into allegations regarding the eligibility of a record-breaking quarterback, Heisman winner and currently its most prominent star. Perhaps they decided it would have been bad for business, the proverbial final nail in the coffin that could irrevocably shift turn public opinion against them.
While its possible Auburn will lose its title and Newton will be stripped of his Heisman retroactively, a blank history book hardly seems adequate for a potentially skewed playing field. All parties involved have already earned their money, and Auburn will be remembered as the 2011 National Champion and Newton as the 2010 Heisman winner. Newton will move on to the pros, just as Reggie Bush has, and emerge unscathed by his past to earn millions.
Regardless of the final punishment, only one outcome is guaranteed by this tainted season: the moral imperative upon which sports rely on has been eroded. While publicly financed stadiums will continue to be built and universities — and their athletic programs — will continue to enjoy tax-free status, we will be left wondering if the playing field in college football is even, or if some program with deep pockets has seized the competitive advantage by buying players or by looking the other way as their players are compensated by independent parties. Worst of all, we will be left wondering if anybody who can ensure the competitive integrity of the game actually cares.
— Contact Geoff Gilbert.