In an effort to clear the decks and focus on actual football tomorrow -- a novel idea, I know -- let's gather some final thoughts on this week's Cam Newton saga, which really needs a better name than simply "Cam Newton stories." I'll work on that over the weekend, but no promises. In any case, I would again remind you of Year2's useful primer on who has said what, and present to you the five most important questions that still remain to be answered.
Is it true?
This is something that everyone, save Auburn fans, has kind of lost sight of over the last few days. I don't doubt that Joe Schad's sources are telling him what he reports they're telling him, but let's also not put it past those sources to lie. Or unintentionally relay false information. Or whatever. Remember that there are still football games to be won in the SEC and still years-long trend lines to be set; Auburn's focus will be key to the former, and Newton's eligibility and decision about whether to hone his skills for another year before heading to the pros are are going to be major factors in the latter. Tell me right now that you're willing to rule out a coach at a rival program lying to ESPN to get some information out there that maybe they think is true but can't confirm. Again, this is the SEC we're talking about here. One of the things we're proud of is that we have coaches who are willing to go to almost any legal extent to win games, and if there's one thing the Newton story would prove if it is true is that there might be some willing to cross the line to win those games.
What's the timeline on all this?
Some of these issues have already been raised by Dr. Saturday, among others, but they're worth repeating here. The SEC has pretty clearly said that the information it received from Mississippi State wasn't enough, but new information didn't come from the school until this summer. (And if you're looking for the source of the "procrastination," in the Doc's words, Year2 has you covered here. Two words: Renardo Sidney.) Auburn fans have clung to the hope that Gene Chizik and Co. wouldn't be so stupid as to play a player they new to be ineligible -- will. not. make. obvious. 5-19. joke. -- but, really, isn't the point of cheating to break the rules? In other words, if all this is true and Chizik knew about and possibly signed off on the payments (more on that shortly), why wouldn't he let Newton play? As far as Newton continuing to play as all this stuff leaks out into the open -- the season is already going to be wiped away at this point if it's true, so why not keep playing with house money? If Chizik didn't know about the possibility of payments until they were reported to the NCAA, and he decided to play Newton anyway, that would be the kind of reckless thing that you would hope an SEC head coach wouldn't do. But that doesn't mean it's the kind of reckless thing that an SEC head coach wouldn't do.
Who leaked the story to the media?
Obviously, your humble correspondent's prime suspect is pretty clear at this point, but it's not a slam-dunk case. Once the NCAA investigation began, there are any number of people in Birmingham and Indianapolis who might have known about it. And whenever something like this starts in college football -- particularly in a conference as competitive and interlinked as the SEC -- there are going to be rumors flying around. It's obvious who gave the information to the SEC and the NCAA; Mississippi State has copped to that. That doesn't necessarily make them the ones who spoke to the media. After all, Alabama fans for years held Phillip Fulmer responsible for reporting the Tide's involvement in the Albert Means scandal to the Association, but the judge in a related civil lawsuit said in September that it was Arkansas that blew the whistle.
What did Auburn know, and when did they know it?
I hate to reach for the cliche bag on this one, but it's the best way I know to frame a key question. If all this is true but Auburn officials didn't know what's going on -- work with me -- then this is a lack of institutional control issue. The NCAA will still drop the hammer, but Auburn will still continuously play football over the next five years. If we instead have a coordinated attempt by Auburn to arrange for boosters to pay players, that is another type of case entirely. I can't imagine that, given Auburn's (admittedly long ago) history with the NCAA, the sanctions committee wouldn't at least put the death penalty on the table. I think the Southern Methodist example would give them pause about actually imposing it -- it's very likely that the death penalty will never again be used barring something completely outrageous -- but it might very well be discussed. If Auburn knew very little about the payment, it might not even come up at all.
If it's true, was Newton the only one?
This could also play into what sanctions the NCAA hands down. If Newton is one player who got payments because he was so central to Auburn's hopes, the penalties could approach USC-level but not completely annihilate the program. If we've got a coordinate system of payments where boosters are matched up with high level recruits in a sort of "Sponsor a Five-Star" program, then the death penalty would become a very serious option for the NCAA to consider. That would be closer to the Southern Methodist example, although nothing can quite compete with the SWC-level corruption in the 1980s. That might be what would turn the committee away from axing Auburn's program for a year or two; for whatever we find out over the next few months, it's hard to imagine that the Tigers have done something justifying the worst punishment at the Association's disposal.
Of course, we reserve the right to ask several more questions if ESPN drops another 11 p.m. bombshell on Newton. Stay tuned.