For SEC championship game purposes, the three biggest words in the NCAA’s statement on Cam Newton were these: “Is immediately eligible.” Over the longer term, three bigger words were tucked into this statement from the NCAA’s Kevin Lennon.
“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.”
The three massive words: “At this time.”
Just because Cam Newton has been cleared to play Saturday doesn’t mean he has been cleared forever. It doesn’t mean the NCAA can’t and won’t continue to investigate. (It can and surely will.) And if at any time it finds “sufficient evidence” that Newton himself or a representative of Auburn violated an NCAA regulation … well, we know what that means.
Folks on the outside have a tough time understanding how the NCAA works. (Folks on the inside do, too.) But the key revelation made Wednesday was that the NCAA had indeed found evidence a rule had been flouted — by Cecil Newton, Cam’s dad, and the scout Kenny Rogers in their solicitation of Mississippi State. This prompted Auburn to declare Newton ineligible and petition for reinstatement.
This is the procedure in every NCAA case. (Georgia’s A.J. Green had to be reinstated after the NCAA suspended him those four games.) That the NCAA acted so quickly, reinstating Newton a day after Auburn ruled him ineligible, was surely due to logistics: Auburn has a game Saturday.
Yes, it’s a big game. And yes, it was awfully convenient that Auburn rendered Newton ineligible on Tuesday, Nov. 30, as opposed, say, to Friday, Nov. 26. (Gee, that was the date of the Iron Bowl!) So far, you’d have to say Auburn has found its version of Ed Tolley, the Athens attorney who has steered Georgia through tempest after tempest the past quarter-century. But that’s OK: If you were a school under scrutiny and your football team was about to play for an SEC championship and then maybe the BCS title, you’d have to be awfully dumb not to hire a smart lawyer.
Newton being rendered ineligible for one day might seem silly, but it served an essential purpose: It forced the NCAA to say yea or nay as to his playing status. It forced the NCAA to tell us, “A violation was committed … but the violation wasn’t Auburn’s.” A lot of folks have hooted down this ruling, saying it opens the door for every prospect to find a relative willing to be his talent broker and take the rap if found out, but the NCAA hasn’t yet slammed this particular door.
I say again: Don’t mistake this reinstatement for absolution. The NCAA didn’t say, “Case closed.” Newton and Auburn could still be held accountable for any transgressions that come to light. (And we know already the NCAA has found one violation involving one Newton.) Cam Newton has been cleared to play Saturday, but he and his school are not yet in the clear. Wednesday’s ruling restored his eligibility at this time, which isn’t to say for all time.