Monday, November 15, 2010

Cam Newton puts a new spin on an old debate

Since I've written extensively about the contradictions and inconsistencies in NCAA policies, I can't in good conscience ignore the Cam Newton situation that's (very slowly) developing at Auburn. If you're not up to date, the New York Times provides a reasonable summary (with links to prior articles) of the events surrounding the Auburn quarterback (and current Heisman Trophy frontrunner).
Newton’s recruitment is at the center of an NCAA investigation, as three people publicly brought allegations that he was being shopped to Mississippi State for a six-figure amount...
For the NCAA, the Newton case brings up issues and concerns that it has spent decades trying to quell. And the problems are playing out in public in real time, as if it were a continuing soap opera narrated by Twitter.
The allegations that Newton’s father asked for money to sign him cut at the core of the organization’s amateur ideals. The perception that players can be bought and sold for such an exorbitant price recalls lawless days that NCAA officials hoped had long passed...
The allegations that Newton cheated academically three times at Florida before leaving the university is a blow to the NCAA’s effort to show that its stars are actual student-athletes.
Then there is the role of Kenny Rogers, the so-called recruiter who has financial ties to the NFL agent Ian Greengross. Rogers said on a Dallas radio station that Cecil Newton Sr. was looking for $100,000 to $180,000 for his son to play at Mississippi State. If that is true, and the deal was being cut through a person tied to an agent, it would be another black mark for the NCAA in a season in which troubles with agents have been nearly as big of a story as anything that has happened on the field.
Clearly, this thing is a multi-part soap opera that cuts to the core of nearly every major issue that haunts the NCAA. Most importantly, the implication that teams may have considered (or provided) cash incentives in their recruiting activities places a new spin on the old agent-player dynamic.

If you'll recall from my previous posts on the topic, I'm a big fan of pointing out the hypocrisy of college coaches and their strong words regarding professional agents. To wit,
Alabama coach Nick Saban famously referred to agents as "pimps" in the wake of his program's agent-related controversy this summer, saying:
"I don't think it's anything but greed that's creating it right now on behalf of the agents," Saban said in a rant at the SEC media days. "The agents that do this – and I hate to say this, but how are they any better than a pimp?
"I have no respect for people who do that to young people. None. How would you feel if they did it to your child?"
This, from a man who is scheduled to be paid $4 million per year through 2017 for coaching these same kids. Look in the mirror, Nick.
There is, in my mind, little difference between a professional agent and a college coach. Both receive financial benefits directly tied to the performance of young athletes. Both provide some sort of counseling (teaching, negotiating, contract advice, whatever else) to the athlete in return for those financial benefits. Both engage in aggressive recruiting activities to retain the services of the highest quality young athletes, and both have incredible financial incentives to do so.

Why, then, would we think that only agents like Josh Luchs would go so far as to pay players to sign with them? I've always assumed that a pay-for-play scandal at a major NCAA school was inevitable, and whether or not the Cam Newton story becomes that scandal is somewhat irrelevant. The important point is that it's completely plausible given the nature of the landscape in collegiate athletics--sports fans and the media hardly even seem surprised by the allegations.

What's more troubling is that it's Newton, not the schools or the NCAA, who seems to be facing the most scrutiny from the media. This double standard has of course sparked significant anger (and predictable screams of racism), with Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett referring to the situation as "a modern-day lynching" and columnist Jason Whitlock referring to the reporters of the Newton story as "slave-catchers".

The "lynching" accusation is easily dismissable as a man (Dorsett) in search of media attention, but the "slave-catchers" accusation warrants further discussion, as was provided over at Deadspin. I think Whitlock is wrong in his characterization, because regardless of the media's spin on the story, it is the attention placed on the issue that is ultimately important. The more informed the public becomes about what's going on in the NCAA behind the scenes, the better equipped they will be to evaluate the justness of the laws and policies in place. It is the people, not the media, who will ultimately make the decision as to whether or not to pressure the NCAA to change its policies.

The media's job is to make the issue known to the public, and they have done that. Now it is the public's job to take over the fight (or elect not to). If I had to guess, I think that they will indeed take action, and it will be to the benefit of future student-athletes (if not directly Cam Newton). College athletics are rapidly approaching a major point of conflict that will shape the future of the NCAA and universities in general. How the media chooses to portray Cam Newton while it's happening is largely irrelevant in the big picture--for his part, he's more likely to emerge from this mess as Reggie Bush (Super Bowl champion) than as Maurice Clarett (ex-con). For now, he's merely a very talented player who's caught in the crossfire of a very heated debate.

[New York Times]

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