As I’m sure many of you reading this have heard by now, Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton has been mired in a swirl of controversy over the past couple of weeks. Newton, considered by many to be the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy while leading the Tigers to an undefeated record, was first alleged to have sought payments of up to $200,000 during his recruitment from junior college.
Then, on Monday night, reports surfaced that Newton was allegedly facing censure and possible expulsion from the University of Florida due to academic violations before he transferred at the end of his sophomore year. Newton spent the first two seasons of his collegiate career with the Gators, but (according to a Sports Illustrated interview) transferred because of his low position on the Florida depth chart and charges of laptop theft.
Yet, the key word in what I just wrote was not “payments” or “expulsion” or “academic violations”; rather, it was “alleged.” To this point, nothing has been proven, and neither the NCAA nor the Southeastern Conference has taken any disciplinary action to revoke Newton’s remaining eligibility or otherwise prevent him from playing.
Auburn head coach Gene Chizik has shown no indication that he plans to sit Newton, which is a strong vote of confidence given the disastrous consequences that just one rogue athlete can unleash upon an entire program (see Bush, Reggie). Of course, the fact that Auburn is in the thick of a national title hunt has something to do with it, too, but Chizik must weigh the dual probabilities of a championship and of facing program-crippling sanctions.
So Newton might be guilty of taking money or cheating on papers or both. Or he might not be. The plain fact is that we don’t yet know and must wait for the results of NCAA investigations to truly find out.
In light of all this, I find the media’s collective rush to judgment to be extremely troubling. A number of columnists have bashed Newton, automatically assuming that he must be guilty of everything he has been accused of.
It might be partly because the recent scandals across college football have conditioned us to assume that guilt, but what happened to innocent until proven guilty? Until someone can show me conclusive proof that Newton took money or cheated academically, until these allegations are confirmed, I refuse to condemn Newton and urge my colleagues in the media to do the same.
Let’s start with the recruiting violations. According to ESPN.com, which broke the story, an agent who said he represented Newton called a former Mississippi State quarterback to say it would “take some cash to get Cam” (the Bulldogs were trying to recruit Newton at the time). For starters, I want proof that this agent represented Newton; I could call the Raiders right now and tell them that I represented Tom Brady and that they should give me $1 million to get him to suit up in the silver and black. Second, I want to see cash changing hands, or at least someone saying on record that it did, and details about the transaction. I can’t condemn Newton based on allegations and the statement, “Well, a third of SEC players are on the take, so he must be, too.”
As for the allegations of academic fraud, the Fox Sports report that broke the story was incredibly flimsy. Here’s the first sentence for you:
“Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton had three different instances of academic cheating while attending the University of Florida and faced potential expulsion from the University, according to a source.”
So this entire story, this whole whirlwind of condemnation on the assumption that, yes, Cam Newton cheated at Florida, is based wholly off one anonymous source? You have to be kidding me.
While I could write an entire column on the overuse of anonymous sources in sports journalism, suffice it to say that I don’t believe allegations stemming from a single unidentified source have enough basis to be credible. The words “according to the source” are used six times throughout the Fox Sports report, with no indication of where this source is from or why he or she asked not to be identified.
Even as a student journalist, if I give a source anonymity, I will list that source’s position or job and the compelling reason(s) as to why they are not identified. I guess the Fox Sports reporters who broke the story are just crossing their fingers and hoping that no one comes along and actually, you know, asks them to verify any of the so-called “truth” they are peddling.
More broadly, the sports media has rushed to judgment in the past and gotten memorably burned; just ask the slew of columnists who blasted the Duke lacrosse team, shoving aside concerns about silly things like “what actually happened,” “the reliability of the accuser” and “police misconduct.” The allegations of rape turned out to be false, and CBS’s “60 Minutes” conducted an extremely thorough, six-month review of the case, basically showing sports journalists how real journalism is done.
So, as the Newton allegations are endlessly replayed on SportsCenter and dissected by ESPN’s talking heads, please keep in mind that they are still just allegations. While the principle of innocent until proven guilty has taken a beating of late, it still has some life left in it; I can only hope that my fellow sportswriters don’t continue to take a sledgehammer to it based on a collective rapid judgment mentality.
Kabir Sawhney still wets the bed, according to an unnamed source. Challenge this accusation’s credibility at ksawhney “at Stanford.edu