Coming Monday, the top two teams in NCAA Division I football take the field as Auburn’s Tigers battle Oregon’s Ducks for a national championship crown.
Unfortunately, while the BCS National Championship game highlights the “best” of college football, the title contest — like bowl games during the past month and the regular season at-large — also spotlights some of the biggest problems apparent in the collegiate gridiron game.
Specifically, many of the young men strapping on helmets belong in bleachers — or, in some cases, jail — not representing their respective institutions of higher learning. However, until the NCAA finally recognizes that money — and the quest for it — continues to create serious problems in the amateur sport it sanctions, I fear that we will continue to see lawbreakers, privilege seekers and unscrupulous characters tarnishing the game that is truly America’s favorite pastime.
There’s little doubt that Auburn and Oregon deserve to contend for a national championship, based on the NCAA’s money-manipulated playing field. Both teams have assembled impressive, undefeated records. Both teams have displayed football prowess over staunch competition. And both teams have earned the right to represent their universities, their conferences and their fans in Glendale, Ariz., on Monday night.
That said, the rosters for both teams include players that have no business playing college football. And without these players, you probably wouldn’t see these teams compete for a championship.
For Auburn, there’s Heisman trophy winner Cam Newton, who is clearly an extremely talented individual. Sadly, his talents, and those of his family extend beyond the football field.
Overlooking accusations of theft and academic cheating that occurred while he was a student at Florida, Newton and his father, Cecil, exemplified the money motivation that drives too many amateur athletes. In case you’ve been under a rock for the past three months or so: Cecil Newton allegedly tried to broker his talented son to the highest college football bidder in hopes of securing a big fat payday in exchange for the quarterback.
Sure, a lot of noise around the Newtons are accusations. However, when the NCAA admonishes Cecil Newton for approaching at least one Southeastern Conference School — Mississippi State — and seeking money for the football services of his son, there must some truth to the rumors. To think, as the NCAA apparently does, that Cecil Newton initiated this brokering on behalf of his son without the Heisman’s winner’s knowledge is ridiculous.
An “agent” for Cam Newton — even if it was his father — sought money for the amateur services of the player. As a result, Cam Newton should not be playing college football. If he wants to get paid for playing, let him go pro, just as plenty of other players will decide to do during weeks ahead.
For Oregon, the problems are slightly different. There, the players are simply criminals.
Star running back LaMichael James was arrested in February for domestic abuse — including misdemeanor charges of strangulation, fourth-degree assault and physical harassment — after he allegedly had a fight with his girlfriend. In 2008, third-degree battery charges against James were dismissed. Even with those charges “forgotten,” it is pretty clear that James is not exactly the kind of player who young athletes should aspire to become.
Meanwhile, former Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, along with other Ducks have been kicked off the team this year for other criminal infractions, including computer theft, marijuana possession and assault.
Yet James played during the 2010 season. In fact, he won All-American honors, rushed for 1,682 yards during the season and was a Heisman finalist. That’s pretty impressive for a guy who was arrested for assaulting and choking his girlfriend.
Why do James and Newton get to flout the laws of our nation and the rules of NCAA and continue playing college football?
Big-time collegiate athletics generates millions of dollars for successful institutions — but supposedly not for the players while they are still amateurs. If a school can put together a winning record and appear in a post-season bowl game — not to mention win that bowl game — it is guaranteed a colossal payday in the form of royalties off merchandise sales. Plus, contenders in these bowl games receive enormous payouts, which admittedly help pay for the cost of the team, its cheerleaders, band and supporters to attend the bowl games.
That said, the $17 million purse that each Auburn and Oregon receive for appearing in the BCS National Championship Game will more than pay for the expenses the institutions incur during the trip. No doubt, the NCAA collects its own share of all those bowl winnings, not to mention money from TV rights and other cash cows connected to big-time college athletics.
If star players of questionable character aren’t leading their teams to victory on prime-time TV, then all that money doesn’t flow to the colleges, the conferences and the NCAA.
At the end of the day, will all that money keep clean the image of institutions that allow criminals and rule-breakers to suit up in their colors? Further, when the sanctioning body of college sports turns a blind eye on certain player infractions and thereby helps allow certain institutions collect a giant bowl purse, can the NCAA really expect these college football programs to abide by the rules and expectations it sets forth?
According to its website, the “core purpose” of the NCAA is to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate inter-collegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.” Think about how well the organization and its institutions are achieving that goal when you watch the “best” of college football take the field on Monday.
Michael Willard is the publisher of and a columnist for The Observer News Enterprise. His column appears int he weekend edition.