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November 5, 2010

Collier: Cam Kerfuffle

Well, that was an interesting evening, wasn't it?

There I was, wrapping up dinner at a sports bar before a Thrashers game, when Cam Newton's face popped up on every screen in the place. Approximately three seconds later, my iPhone exploded, hurling shrapnel halfway to Decatur.

Okay, I made the last part up. But I did get an awful lot of calls.

Unless you're coming out of a coma this morning (watch out for the zombies), you know by now that ESPN and the New York Times went public last night with allegations that an "street agent" runner had solicited Mississippi State for $200,000 (minus a $20,000 "hometown discount") as the purported terms for Cam Newton's signature on a national letter of intent. The story was floated by former MSU quarterback John Bond; the runner is an old teammate of Bond's, a character named Kenny Rogers, who despite his handle, apparently doesn't have much of a grasp of when to hold and/or fold them.

That's really it. ESPN's Pat Forde, Chris Lowe and Mark Schablach, along with the Times' Pete Thamel, don't make any overt accusations against either Auburn or the Newtons, although both sling around innuendo suggesting that Cecil Newton, a minister and bishop, came into some extra cash he needed to repair an Atlanta-area church he's responsible for. The senior Newton firmly denied all the allegations when contacted, and says he willingly turned over his personal and church financial records to the NCAA when asked earlier this year. A local news report published in September 2009, months before Auburn ever contacted or began recruiting Newton, indicates the money for the church renovation was already "in-hand" at that time.

By halftime of last night's Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech game, ESPN was already backtracking on the innuendo; Forde himself eventually admitted that he knew of no evidence implicating Auburn in wrongdoing. For Auburn's part, the athletic department and Gene Chizik both released brief statements declaring that Newton has been and remains eligible to play at AU.

Those statements, while short, are significant. Auburn's current compliance department isn't known for either leniency or looking the other way-just ask new basketball coach Tony Barbee, who nearly walked away from his job entirely last month because of the onerous terms that department had added to his contract.

Multiple reports since the story broke indicate that Auburn has been fully aware of the Kenny Rogers allegations since early last summer, and I feel very safe in saying that if there were any chance of Auburn being implicated in any rule-breaking in this case, Cam Newton would never have put on a Tiger uniform this year. The guys in that office just would not take that kind of a chance-and not because they have any particular love for Auburn University. Sheer careerism on their parts would move them to declare Newton ineligible at the first sign of any potential violations.

Institutionally, Auburn obviously wants to win football games, but the idea that the entire AU administrative apparatus would play Newton with foreknowledge of serious violations-remember, this stuff was known to AU, the SEC and NCAA as far back as July-doesn't stand up to the smell test. You couldn't get that many people to burn their careers over one guy, not matter how many yards he might gain one day. According to the Birmingham News' Charles Goldberg, Auburn thoroughly investigated the allegations months ago, and found no evidence of contact between Rogers and anyone associated with AU.

When asked by the media about the allegations, SEC representative Greg Sankey characterized them as "rumor and innuendo." This sort of accusation pops up all the time in the wake of heated recruiting battles, and the conference and NCAA have to follow up as a matter of course. Unless an actual violation is uncovered, the public never hears about the back-and-forth charges. That is, unless somebody goes public.

In this case, the "somebodies" who went public are apparently Bond and embattled Florida coach Urban Meyer. According to reporting from Rivals.com's Jeffrey Lee, the Newton allegations bubbled up to the surface thanks to a recent phone conversation between Bond, Meyer and Mississippi State coach (and former Meyer assistant) Dan Mullen. Per Lee's account, Meyer was insistent that the charges should go public, while Mullen disagreed.

A couple of points here. Urban Meyer is suffering through the worst season of his career as a major-school head coach. He's been taking fire all year for his moribund offense, and for letting Cam Newton leave Florida after his redshirt sophomore year. Meyer is known to be good friends with Pete Thamel; it's not at all hard to imagine the coach calling up his buddy in the press to try and deflect attention away from his own failings. Thamel, who'd already seen one breathlessly-reported Auburn "scandal" story dissolve into nothing more than a pissing match between two geriatric professors, probably jumped at the chance to take another swing at AU.

If so, he and his ESPN colleagues (John Bond, the sole source for both stories, worked with Mark Schablach in television a while back) picked a pretty fishy witness to hang their hats on. Bond's accusations rest on his alleged conversations with Kenny Rogers, a scab player for the Miami Dolphins during the 1987 strike, who has quite the checkered past. He's currently under investigation by the NFL and NFLPA for misrepresenting himself to potential draftees. Rogers' company is apparently bankrupt, with more than $11,000 in overdrawn checks. Cecil Newton says he didn't even meet Rogers until Cam's visit to Starkville last November, and flatly states that if Rogers solicited money from anyone, he did so on his own without the knowledge of the Newtons.

After canvassing people in a position to know, I think I'm safe in saying that nobody in an official position at Auburn is worried about violations or sanctions coming out of this story-although they are certifiably furious over the media uproar. The Bond allegations are not a surprise, and were settled as far as AU is concerned to the satisfaction of the SEC and NCAA months ago; if not for the apparent intercession of Urban Meyer and John Bond, they would have lived and died in the endless, Byzantine netherworld of underground SEC chatter. Now that they're public, though, people are going to suffer from them. Auburn is going to suffer through a round of catcalls from rivals and the press. Newton's Heisman campaign may well suffer from the innuendo, through no fault of his own. But I suspect the suffering won't end there.

Kenny Rogers is apparently broke, and thus judgment-proof. Urban Meyer and John Bond, on the other hand, are not.


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