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The College Football Report: The Case of Kid Cameron's Elite Preparation as a Commodity in a Poorly Regulated Market

In a week that featured an enormous intergalactic frozen peanut, post-game Tweets on trash talking, and some sort of election hubbub . . . how happy are you that we can return to the agents-recruiters-and-cash-under-the-table issue in college football? What a relief, right? To think we might be focused on, say, Utah versus TCU this Saturday. Or LSU against Alabama. No, by all means, let's dig our shovels into the muck, lift up a scoopful and say, "Here. Smell this."

Recruiters and agents, along with other assorted third parties, have cast a shadow across the 2010-11 season. Beginning with UNC, South Carolina and other schools implicated in the shady Miami Player-Agent Expo (see our preseason notes on the ACC) that took place in the offseason, the storyline has crept into week after week. This week, allegations surfaced concerning the consensus favorite for the Heisman Trophy.

Cameron Newton began his college career as a highly touted backup to the (Immortal, Praise Be Unto Him) Tim Tebow at the University of Florida. He joined the Gators' class of 2007 and gained the backup quarterback spot over fellow freshman (and current Gator QB) John Brantley. He qualified for a medical redshirt season for 2008 but ran into trouble in November 2008 when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a laptop from a fellow student. (Another version of the story has Newton inadvertently buying the stolen computer from a fellow student. Either way, that would make Newton among the many Gators who have found themselves in a situation with the law. We would find a catchy name for this group, like the Gainesville 27, but that number will not stick at 27 forever.)

Facing suspension by coach Urban Meyer, Newton quit the program in January 2009 and transferred to Blinn Community College in Brenham, Texas. After a year of play at the juco level, several SEC schools, among them the notably crooked Kiffins at Tennessee, vied for Cameron's services for the 2010 season. Combined with his stature as a top high school recruit, Newton's 22 TDs (and juco title) at Blinn would give any coach in need of a QB a bad case of the butterflies.

Newton is no run-of-the-mill athlete. Nor does he play a low-profile sport. He's not at Auburn on a table tennis scholarship. He's known for his prowess on the football field, not in the physics lab. And Auburn was justly excited to learn they could count on his presence (all 6-foot-6, 245 pounds of him) when he committed to the Tigers for the 2010 season. The Tigers came into this year with five QBs on the roster, and only one (junior Kodi Burns) had started a game.

The impossible aspect of this situation is that you can't remove the personal nature of dealing with college-aged kids from the business aspect of big-time college football. Newton was, and still remains (albeit his value is tied more to his pro potential now), a commodity. And yet he is, by all accounts, a great kid.

Allegations arose this week, published by ESPN.com, that a man claiming to represent Newton during the fevered period surrounding his transfer from Blinn asked for a six-figure payoff in exchange for a signed national letter of intent committing Newton to a program.

The story originates from Mississippi State, one of the schools that expressed serious interest in Newton in '09. Dan Mullen, former offensive coordinator for Florida during Newton's time in Gainesville, is now the MSU head coach and the Bulldogs seemed like a natural fit. Former MSU player Kenny Rodgers has been identified as the alleged agent for Newton (if that's what we want to call it) who approached the school with the pay-for-play pitch.

Rodgers runs a company called "Elite Football Preparation", with operations in Chicago, Alabama and Mississippi. Reportedly, Rodgers shopped Newton around the SEC with a price tag of $200,000 - but was willing to offer a $20,000 discount to MSU. (That's a 10% cut - the Friends & Family Plan really delivers at EFP!)

To be clear, all of this could be untrue, exaggerated or done without (as they maintain) the consent of the Newton family. To me, that doesn't change the larger picture. While many, if not most, of these operators shouldn't be considered agents (not everyone can be a Worldwide Wes, after all), I don't know what else to call them. Concerned parties? Friends of the family? And how much commission would one of these bird dogs earn on a $200,000 finders fee? Sports agents typically take about four percent - but those deals are in the millions and done above the table.

For example, assuming Rodgers pocketed only a portion of the payoff, what happened to the remainder?

The authors of the ESPN story (Pat Forde, Chris Low and Mark Schlabach) hint that, if Auburn did pay Rodgers for Cameron's services, some of the cash may have helped the Newton family restore their church in Newman, Georgia. Newton's father Cecil runs the Holy Zion Center of Deliverance in Coweta County. As of 2009, the church was in danger of being demolished. In a curious bit of timing, the county received word this spring that the long-delayed work on the church would begin. And as of last month the church is in compliance with county building codes.

Considered against recent examples (Reggie Bush, et al.), the Newton story - while somewhat tragic if true - does not sound too farfetched.

Spotlighting the role of the true bad guy - EFP, in this case - only raises more doubts on the rest of the companies, "prep" camps, boosters and other independent agents doing business in the gap between high schools, junior colleges and major college programs. To say that these entities operate along the margins is a gross underestimate.

The market surrounding athletes and prospects has outpaced the system built to oversee it. And in truth, the system isn't built to respond quickly. Compared to agents who can operate at will in the market - essentially, shifting on the fly to follow the money - changes to the NCAA will need to wait until at least 2012 for all the committees, councils and cabinets to submit findings and come to an agreement.

In an interesting development, the NCAA - possibly sensing that transparency could equate to an improved public image - has hired the author of the old Bylaw Blog. The blog was known for a time as the best window into the inner workings of the world of collegiate athletics. We will be interested to see how well the (co-opted?) version resonates with the public.

While we hope the Newton story ends in clearing Cameron and his family, some case somewhere, involving a star player with a big-name program, has to be the last straw. Auburn coach Gene Chizik is only half-right when he says "Cameron Newton is eligible at Auburn University, period. End of story."

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The Sports Seal Says . . .
Illinois @ Michigan (Over 57, Saturday 11:00AM)
Navy @ East Carolina (-3, Saturday 2:30PM)
Texas @ Kansas State (+3.5, Saturday 7:00PM)

The College Football Report Staff Says . . .
It's Road Team Week here at CFR. Get in the spirit by schlepping to some unfamiliar watering hole with your crew. Get there early, stake out a spot and wear your colors proudly.

#3 TCU (-5) @ #5 Utah (Saturday, 2:30PM)
#18 Arkansas (+4) @ South Carolina (Saturday, 6:00PM)
#6 Alabama (-6.5) @ #10 LSU (Saturday, 2:30PM)

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Mike Luce and the Beachwood Sports Seal bring you The College Football Report every week. They welcome your comments.

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