When a $200,000 Asking Price Just Isn't Enough: Scott Soshnick

The worst part of this Cam Newton pay-for-play affair isn’t that a college football player might have broken the rules -- we’re used to that. It’s that these athletically blessed saps still have no idea how valuable they are to their, ahem, institutions of higher learning.

It’s obvious that Newton, the Auburn quarterback and Heisman hopeful, needs a primer on the business of big-time college sports. With knowledge comes power. And profit.

A report says Newton had an asking price of $200,000. If a school wanted him in uniform, it had to pay. But that dollar amount simply can’t be right. It’s nowhere near enough. Not for a kid who can deliver 15 rushing touchdowns, 19 passing touchdowns and, most importantly, a No. 2 ranking that translates into a possible berth in the national championship game.

Sure it’s a violation of National Collegiate Athletic Association rules for a college athlete to take money, but that’s how big-time athletics works these days. It’s a cesspool of alumni boosters, agents, administrators, coaches, hangers-on and, yes, players who choose to break the rules.

See, for example, Reggie Bush, who won the 2005 Heisman Trophy while at Southern Cal only to give it back after it was discovered that he accepted cash and gifts.

Newton, a former backup to Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow at the University of Florida, might win the Heisman, too. Whether the junior will get to keep it is another question.

Shopped Around

According to an ESPN.com report, which cited former Mississippi State quarterback John Bond, Newton was being shopped around by a middleman to a number of schools, including MSU.

Mississippi State, the report said, was being asked to pay $180,000, a discount rate because Newton liked the team’s coach. Generous, huh?

MSU, to its credit, declined to entertain the offer, the report said. Newton wound up at Auburn, which is undefeated and second to the University of Oregon in the all-important Bowl Championship Series standings.

Officials at Auburn say only that Newton is eligible to play. Newton’s father told ESPN the family never took money and that no one was authorized to act on the 6-foot-6, 250-pound kid’s behalf. Meantime, FoxSports.com reported that Newton faced expulsion while at Florida for academic cheating. Auburn coach Gene Chizik called that report “pure garbage.”

Hard to Know

Who knows what to believe anymore? Sports gambling operators don’t, which is why Auburn’s game tomorrow against Georgia earlier this week temporarily was removed from many betting boards. Here’s the impossible-to-refute money side of the tale.

The two top teams in the BCS standings will meet in the national championship game, scheduled for Jan. 10 in Glendale, Arizona. The teams’ conferences share an $18 million payout. Oh, as for those quaint bowl games, the stuff of bonfires and parades, it’s worth noting that the game’s directors each are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There’s more. There’s ticket revenue, merchandise, alumni donations, boosters and sponsorship to things like video games, where the Auburn quarterback will wear jersey No. 2, the same as Newton, who won’t see a dime of that money. All in, we’re talking tens of millions of dollars.

And then there’s the halo effect created by winning. Prices go up. On everything.

Your Name Here

Check out the Auburn Web site. Ever dream of having your name on an Auburn football locker, the school asks. You can. For a $10,000 donation your name will be engraved on a stainless steel plaque at the top of the locker. Can’t you just see all those fans, basking in the euphoria of a national title, reaching for their credit cards?

Suddenly $200,000 doesn’t seem like much for a quarterback with the goods to pilot an undefeated team.

This pay-for-play stuff is rampant in big-time college sports. It’s risk versus reward. The NCAA seems powerless to stop it.

Read the Sports Illustrated story from last month, the one titled “Confessions of an Agent,” in which Josh Lucks comes clean about the sordid side of amateur sports. Money, yes. But meals, trips, concert tickets, even women. Whatever it took to cultivate a friendship, which, as every agent hopes, will blossom into a business relationship replete with signing bonuses and percentages of contract and marketing deals.

Kansas’s Dana Stubblefield, Southern Cal’s Keyshawn Johnson and UCLA’s J.J. Stokes said no to Lucks’s money. Good for them.

But how many say yes? It’s impossible to know.

What we do know, as the late NCAA President Myles Brand always lamented, is that there’s an arms race among big-time programs to build bigger stadiums, which require more wins, which require the best coaches, who require the best players, who require, well, you know.

That’s the game outside the game, the one of whispers, envelopes and mysterious grade changes.

Just hate to see a kid cheat himself. Even the cheater.

(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Scott Soshnick in New York at ssoshnick@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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