Newton’s Award Doesn’t Make the Grade

Awards are funny things in sports.  How do you determine who the best player is?  What do you base it on?  In baseball, this year the voters gave the Cy Young Award in the American League, for the best pitcher, to Felix Hernandez, who had only won 50 percent of his games.  It turns out that his teammates didn’t give him much support when he pitched in that they didn’t score many runs in those games.  He had an excellent strikeout ratio and earned run average and many of his other statistics were dominant, but his won/loss record was something of an eyesore for those looking only briefly at his performance during the season.  It’s worth it, clearly, to give a good hard look at these things when voting.

For Saturday night’s Heisman Trophy Award, the voters gave it to Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who had a dominant season on the field.  He ran for over a thousand yards and twenty touchdowns and threw for over two thousand yards and twenty-eight touchdowns.  And his team went undefeated and ended the regular season as the SEC champion and the #1 ranked team in the country.  It’s not to see why he was selected – it was a magical season for Newton and his team.  But here’s the thing about the Hesiman.  It’s supposed to recognize the outstanding player in college football that year, but that player is also supposed to represent the integrity of the game.  This is where the voting seems suspect to me.

I’m not referring here to the controversy that exploded in November concerning an alleged attempt to execute a “pay for play” scheme.  For those who don’t know much about this controversy, here’s a brief summary.  Last season, after transferring from the University of Florida to Blinn College, a junior college in Texas, and then taking that team to the national championship for junior colleges, Cam Newton was looking to transfer to a major college football program.  His father, Cecil Newton, was involved in this search.  Allegedly, he reached out to people associated with the Mississippi State program and requested about $140,000 for Cam to commit to their program.  A variety of people involved have confirmed this.  Moreover, Cecil Newton allegedly told those reps from Mississippi State that in the end the money was too good from Auburn to turn down and that Cam would be attending that school.  Auburn officials have denied any wrongdoing on their part, and deny ever offering or paying money for Cam Newton to attend their university and play for their team.  Cam himself, meanwhile, has denied knowing anything about the “pay for play” scheme and has said that he chose Auburn because it was the best fit for him.

Altogether, it’s been something of an ugly story.  No one has come out of it smelling particularly clean, not even Cam.  However, the NCAA cleared him of wrongdoing and allowed him to continue to play and represent Auburn on the field.  Apparently, Heisman voters accepted this decision as evidence that Cam Newton was cleared, even while the stories about his father’s actions have continued.  His father, by the way, chose to stay away from last night’s award ceremony in order to not serve as a distraction for his son’s award.  Cam expressed displeasure at that decision but accepted the award.

Ultimately, I can understand the voters’ choice to treat Cam Newton’s performance as most important in their voting decision, and I can even understand the notion that if the NCAA has cleared him then they should treat that as clearance for them to treat him as a good and fair representative of the sport.  My problem with that, though, is that they seem to have ignored what happened with Newton when he was at the University of Florida – the things that led him to transfer in the first place.

Newton has said he left Florida because Tim Tebow – the starting quarterback for Florida, a former Heisman winner, and the all-around face of the Gator program – decided to return for his senior year rather than turn professional, which meant that Newton would have a second season of sitting on the bench while Tebow started for the team.  Newton wanted a chance to play and wanted to go somewhere where he could show off his skills and his talent.  Eventually, after a year at a community college, he found that place at Auburn.  However, it is not actually clear whether Newton left Florida or whether Florida got rid of Newton.  There’s no real difference in the grand scheme of things, you might say, but I propose that there is actually a major difference, because one version of the events has Newton making the choice to leave in order to play, while the other version of the events is more focused on Newton’s unsavory behavior while at Florida.  And when I say “unsavory” I mean unethical and possibly illegal.

According to this second version of the events, Newton was caught three separate times cheating in his classes in his two years at Florida.  One time cheating is a serious violation of student ethics and most college’s and university’s codes of conducts.  Three times?  How can one excuse or explain or justify this?  In addition, in November of 2008, in his second year at the university, Newton was questioned and arrested for his role in the theft of a laptop computer.  The arrest was for purchasing a stolen computer, with authorities finding the laptop in his possession.  The team suspended Newton, but he withdrew from the university after the semester.  Privacy laws bar colleges and universities from providing information concerning students’ records, so what happened for Newton in his courses is not for public consumption.  What about the arrest?  All charges were dropped after he completed a court-approved pretrial diversion program.  What does that mean?  He avoided prosecution by taking some classes and clearing some low hurdles, skipping out of trouble while helping the courts avoid further logjam.

But there is enough smoke here to suggest some type of fire, and by that I mean to raise some serious questions about Cam Newton’s ethics and integrity.  Cheating on three separate occasions is a very serious deal for an undergraduate and would lead most institutions to kick that student out of the college.  I have not seen him actually answer questions about his time at Florida – he tends to dismiss such questions by saying he’s focused on the present and on his time at Auburn.  Why do reporters accept such answers?  I’d tell him that’s great, but that it wouldn’t take much away from that focus to answer the questions about what happened two years ago.  (Reporters too easily accept non-answers from athletes, it seems to me, much like reporters during the George W. Bush years were all too willing to believe what government officials told them – Judith Miller, anyone?)  And the more he refused, the more I’d press and point out to him that not answering only raises further questions and concerns.  Newton doesn’t want to answer these questions, which leads me to believe that it is because he doesn’t want to talk about what happened there and then.  Because he has something he wants to keep silent, hidden, away from public consumption.

What’s at stake here are ethics and integrity, as well as the reputation of the sport.  This morning, I listened to “The Dan Patrick Show” on the radio, as he told of his conversation on Saturday with a recruiter from the SEC – the league of Auburn, Florida, Alabama, and a number of other football powerhouses.  The recruiter said that all the best college football players were for sale and that recruiters from teams from other conferences back away from recruits once a team from the SEC seeks a player, because those schools are willing to pay the money to get the player.  This was a distressing story for anyone interested in the integrity of the sport.  But I can’t say it’s much of a surprise.

I’m not suggesting that Newton might be the only player getting paid to play for a particular school, or that his representatives are the only ones seeking such compensation.  Sadly, I fear that happens often.  What I’m more concerned with is that voters didn’t do their homework and didn’t look closely into the story of his past – not only the recruiting but his time at Florida.  It seems to me that this is not a young man who serves as an honorable representative for the sport.

No one is perfect – we all make mistakes.  But Newton wants not only to avoid his past, he wants also to erase it, which suggests that he has never truly atoned for his mistakes and indeed has never done the actual and serious work of understanding the things he did wrong as a student and what he did wrong with the purchasing of the laptop.  By essentially erasing his past he isn’t doing the work of learning from his very serious breaches of judgment. By disregarding his past, by not raising questions, the journalists who voted for Newton did a poor job.  They were derelict in their responsibilities.  They were obligated to think harder about all this when they were voting for him.

Ultimately, whether Felix Hernandez had the most wins or best winning percentage wasn’t really a factor for the majority of voters for the AL Cy Young Award.  Looking closely at a number of statistics helped give voters a broader perspective on his season and his accomplishments as a player.  He had an outstanding season and is a fine representative for his game.  Cam Newton had an outstanding season too, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s much harder to argue that he is a fine representative for the amateur sport of college football.  Much like his work in his classes, it seems, this just doesn’t make the grade.