Sportswriter/author/ Bo Jackson-profiler /Penn State fan Michael Weinreb was kind enough to articulate his spiritual sympathies with Auburn fans, who he says are enduring in the Cam Newton saga just the latest manifestation of a deeply-flawed system. TWER takes full responsibility for the Onyx-referencing headline.
Let me begin with this: I grew up a fan of Penn State football, and so you may assume that everything I say is couched in a certain amount of stodgy Northeastern academic elitism. At Penn State, they like to think they treat football and compliance with equal dilligence, which is why my alma mater often finds itself marooned in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, led by a seemingly indestructible octogenarian who resembles a professor emeritus at Hogwarts. You may think of us a declining power with prison-issue uniforms and a stunning inability to defeat Alabama, but at least we are self-righteous about it.
And so, while it is true that, in the midst of researching my latest book, I bore witness to the holy act of Bo Jackson firing a crossbow in his own driveway, I am not going to lie and say I understand exactly what you are feeling down there at Toomer’s Corner at this critical juncture. (The closest Penn State has come to a truly juicy recruiting scandal revolved around Joe Paterno’s insistence on converting several future Hall of Fame quarterbacks to linebacker.) But we do have one thing in common: We have both felt the sting of being worked over by the pollsters. If you examine the record, what happened to Auburn in 2004 is essentially what happened to Penn State in 1994. And in an odd way, I can’t help but feel that what is happening to Cam Newton at this very moment is also something I relate to, a distant spiritual cousin to those lost seasons. Because at heart, it’s exposing the same deep flaw in the system.
I will explain further, but allow me to get a couple of things out of the way first. Number One: I do not know if Cam Newton took money, and unless you work as a bagman in Starkville, neither do you. It was much easier to make these determinations in the 1980s, when governors were directly involved in the bribery (see: Southern Methodist). Number Two: “The media” is not biased against Auburn. “The media” is not a uniform monolith with a hidden agenda any more than Gary Danielson is somehow secretly influencing conference play through his color analysis.*
That said, I do understand that college football fandom is built on a foundation of irrationality. Nobody is more proudly biased than a college football fan, and nothing inspires irrationality in otherwise rational souls quite like this sport. This is what makes it great. But this also its fatal flaw. We have allowed the system itself to become grounded in impartiality. We rely on rigged elections to determine a victor. We acknowledge that we are taking financial advantage of student-athletes by profiting off their labors, but we don’t care enough to advocate for change. In the meantime, we know that some teams subsidize their players more than others, and some teams bend the rules and others break them completely, but we have little beyond our own biases and the occasional journalistic expose and the erratic and often hypocritical judgments of the NCAA to guide ourselves to those conclusions. There is no reason to trust anyone. The system is so broken at so many levels that there’s a part of us that almost feels like it’s a victory when our team benefits from a blatant transgression—even if we know our team is in the wrong–because somebody has to.
I’m sure Nebraska fans feel that way about their so-called national championship in 1994. And I’m sure USC fans couldn’t care less about Auburn’s claim to the 2004 title. We are selfish beings. As an Auburn fan, I cannot blame you if a part of you does not really care if Cam Newton took that money or didn’t take that money, or if a part of you hopes that Newton took that cash and got away with it. I cannot blame you if, say, this Auburn team wins the national championship, and six months later you find out that Newton’s entire family was offered $700,000, a live polar bear, and the services of a fleet of hyperintelligent robots, and you still consider this team a legitimate national champion. Because the system is based on completely unobjective truths. Because the system has screwed your school, just as it screwed my alma mater a decade earlier, just as it has been screwing athletes like Cam Newton for decades. Until it changes, why shouldn’t you screw the system in return? Amid this skewed landscape, your definition of legitimacy is as rational as anything else.
*Though I cannot vouch for Lundquist.
Michael Weinreb’s most recent book is Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB and How the ’80s Created the Modern Athlete. He has been a regular contributor to ESPN.com and The New York Times, and his profile of Bo Jackson was anthologized in the Best American Sports Writing collection.