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Cam Newton Investigation: Why the NCAA Got It Wrong

He wins. The rest of us lose.
He wins. The rest of us lose.

NOTE: A disclaimer, since it's almost inevitable that this will come up. I want Cam Newton to be eligible to play in the SEC Championship Game this weekend, and not just as an SEC fan. As a South Carolina fan, I want there to be no debate about the Gamecocks' accomplishment if they somehow manage to pull off an upset that I don't really expect. There was never any reason to believe that Cam Newton would be ineligible for the SEC Championship Game, and so it doesn't change my expectations in the least. That's not what this post is about.

There's always been a bit of an uneasy balance in a democracy between our need to protect ourselves from crime and the questions about charging a citizen with conspiracy. For those who haven't followed an esoteric and kind of archaic debate about conspiracy, a conspiracy charge is brought against someone who helps or plans to help break the law -- even if they don't get to the point of committing the crime. The last part is what can be controversial: Why should prosecutors be able to bring criminal charges against someone who hasn't yet broken the law, or is just thinking about breaking the law?

The answer, supporters say, is because some crimes are so harmful to society that you can't wait until the crime is committed or can't only prosecute those who carry it out. If a terrorist is planning to build and set off a bomb at a shopping mall, it's best not to wait until he's walking into the mall to arrest him. If a governor is preparing to sell off a U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder, you don't necessarily want to wait until the money is in hand and the senator is seated to issue indictments.

The NCAA essentially ruled today that there are no conspiracy charges when it comes to the Association's bylaws. You can dissect the statement anyway you want, you can point to Mike Slive's judicial (and overly judicious) reasoning if you want, but the NCAA today ruled that trying to sell your son to the highest bidder isn't that bad if you don't actually get any money in the end. Cecil Newton can still look for Dan Mullen to put a smile on his face as long as he never actually smirks.

If you're an Auburn fan, or you're one of those who debate the merits of the amateurism rules in the first place, this is really not that big a deal. In the latter case, I'm talking about those who don't see a small amount of spending money as sufficient reform to the NCAA's arcane scholarship rules. They want tens of thousands of dollars to go to some students, and don't really care that this would gut everything that makes college athletics unique. But I digress. In the former case, you will repeat a mantra that is tried, and for the moment true: There is no proof that Auburn did anything wrong; why should the Tigers be punished?

It could be a fair point, I suppose, but the NCAA has proven to readily ignore that idea in the past. First, the facts as the NCAA has presented them:

[T]he student-athlete's father and an owner of a scouting service worked together to actively market the student-athlete as a part of a pay-for-play scenario in return for Newton’s commitment to attend college and play football. ...

"Based on the information available to the reinstatement staff at this time, we do not have sufficient evidence that Cam Newton or anyone from Auburn was aware of this activity, which led to his reinstatement."

And I know I'm not the first one to say this, but it bears repeating as often as possible: If this remains the end of the fallout from the Newton recruitment, the Association has not created a massive new loophole in the rules. It has thrown the rulebook out completely.

Non-Auburn fans by and large have voiced that very concern in the wake of this decision. Meanwhile, at least one Auburncentric outlet is bring up Albert Means (how convenient) to say that the precedent here has already been set.

You see Memphis wasn’t involved in any illegal recruiting of Means and he nor his family got any extra benefits. Therefore he was able to play for the Tigers after sitting out a year because of the transfer. Even though money exchanged hands in the Means case, he was still able to play at Memphis.

Well, yes, that's a precedent -- if you ignore the whole "facts of the case" thing. First, there appears to have been no direct benefit to Means or his family in the recruitment of Means, nor any talk of direct benefit to Means or his family. Whether the prospect or his family is involved in the effort to receive benefits would, I think, be something of interest to the NCAA.

Second, Albert Means transferred to Memphis not just after the rules violations had occurred, but after they had been discovered. In other words, Albert Means did not decide to play at Memphis as part of the same recruitment that sparked the NCAA investigation.

Auburn was recruiting Cam Newton at the same time that Mississippi State was, which raises this nagging question: If Auburn really did nothing wrong here, did not pay or arrange to pay Cecil Newton anything, why did this happen?

Newton preferred Starkville because of his close relationship with Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen, who had been Newton's offensive coordinator at Florida. But Cecil thought his son should choose Auburn, which had an experienced offensive line (four starters were returning) and was only a two-hour drive from Atlanta. Newton let his father make the final decision, and a few days before Christmas, while sitting at the dinner table in his brother's house in Jacksonville, Cecil Sr. uttered two words that would radically alter the college football landscape: "It's Auburn."

This is an odd timeline of events. We now have a situation where no one disputes that Cecil Newton was involved in a pay-for-play scheme. He asked Mississippi State for money and, by all counts, they didn't pay. The official Auburn version of the story now says that Auburn didn't pay Newton, either. But if Cam wanted to go to Mississippi State, and neither Auburn nor Mississippi State paid the Newtons, then why did Cecil choose Auburn? Spite? It's not like he then had anything to gain by declining to allow Cam to follow his heart and play at State.

That question was always there, but it takes on greater urgency now that we know Cecil Newton was asking Mississippi State for money and no one is really contesting that.

But let's go into a hypothetical situation for a moment: What if Cam Newton had gone to Mississippi State instead? Would anyone out there not be ruling their eyes if the same ruling was made? Does anyone seriously think that the same ruling would have been made? Or that Auburn fans wouldn't have been among those leading the siege on Indianapolis if it was made? Isn't the difference here, for those of us not blinded by fandom, less one of some sort of victory for the Newtons and Auburn and more of a loss for common sense?

What makes all of this more confusing is that it seems to be a return to the 2000s-era NCAA in the middle of an active period where the Association had sent a clear message that the "see no evil" period was over. But now there are questions about what the NCAA was doing if it's going to back of in this case. There is a question of proportionality when A.J. Green is suspended for four games for selling a jersey and Cam Newton misses not a game. Georgia did nothing wrong there, and was only punished by a 1-4 start that Green could have helped avoid.

And think about the questions that Enes Kanter's supporters must be asking about how far plausible deniability goes.

Kanter and his father acknowledged in August receiving the benefits, the NCAA said. On Oct. 25, UK officials agreed with the dollar amount but presumably argued that the money was part of the permitted actual and necessary expenses. The NCAA disagreed.

Would it have been better if Kanter had said he didn't know how much money his family had received? Heck, if he said he thought his family was only receiving permitted actual and necessary expenses, he ought to be able to play, right? And I would really like anyone from the NCAA who disagrees with that to answer this: Why not?

I don't know what the road looks like from here for this investigation. If nothing else is found, can you lower the boom on Mississippi State for continuing to recruit Newton after they heard about the pay-for-play scheme? How can you do that without also hammering Auburn? And how can you do that if Auburn knows nothing about this, which is now apparently enough for the NCAA? I don't see how the NCAA can levy sanctions against anyone if the facts don't change.

But do that, and no one faces any real consequences. If his own athletics department was apparently willing to turn on him, one wonders how much Kenny Rogers really loses from being disassociated. Cam Newton is all but certainly gone to the NFL after this year. Cecil Newton will surely get a slice of his sizable signing bonus. And Auburn will have a Heisman Trophy and maybe a crystal football, even if both come wrapped in questions that will never be answered.

And if there are no sanctions, there is no deterrent.

The NCAA investigation in this case has so far done us no good; it hasn't answered any of the questions or provided any clarity. Instead, it's just muddied the water, stacking question on top of question, and leaving the sport's fans to try to figure out what the rules are and how they are applied. It has made things immeasurably worse.

And our conference and our sport are poorer for it.