View from US: Newton's law as controversial college star set for top award

Barring a massive upset, charismatic quarterback Cameron Newton will be named the USA’s best collegiate player ensuring a future paved in gold in the NFL. But at what cost, asks John Riordan in New York.

Image: Dave Martin/AP/Press Association Images

FAR AWAY FROM American college football’s heartlands in the Deep South and the Midwest, New York still has a grip over its most prestigious individual award, the Heisman Trophy.

Like so much of American sport, the Heisman is suffused in equal measure with fascinating tradition and vile opportunism.

It was first awarded to the NCAA’s top football player “east of the Mississippi River” in 1935 by Lower Manhattan’s Downtown Athletic Club (DAC) before being renamed after the DAC’s first Athletic Director John W Heisman, who died in 1936.

The DAC could not survive the financial impact of 9/11 and so the award lives on under the auspices of the Heisman Trust – and, yes, players west of the Mississippi have been allowed to compete since the 1930s.

Were Heisman still alive, he’d have mixed feelings this Saturday night when the ceremony takes place at the Nokia Theater in Times Square.

The soul searching by Heisman voters (870 members of the media and all living former winners as well as one combined public vote) has been going on for weeks now with this year’s expected winner and next-big-thing, Cameron Newton, proving to be one of the most controversial – and most talented candidates – of all time.

Heisman was himself a coach at quarterback Newton’s Auburn University (the Auburn Tigers), the Alabama institution which has the honour of residing in the “Loveliest Little Village on the Plains”.

If they beat Oregon University (the play thing of Nike co-founder Phil Knight) in January’s national championship decider, they will confirm their status as the nation’s best collegiate side.

And they will have done so with a quarterback who has left a trail of off-field controversy behind him just as he has stubbornly continued to dismantle opponents on the field.

Newton’s father Cecil was found guilty by the NCAA of attempting to extract money out of Mississippi State University for the services of his star offspring but Cameron himself was last week cleared of any wrongdoing – in the nick of time.

Innocent but with a notable blemish that could follow him everywhere no matter how huge he becomes in his professional career.

New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush was dogged by accusations of having accepted money ‘gifts’ from two California-based marketing agents during his Heisman-winning season with the University of Southern California (USC) in 2005.

For four years he was haunted by the skeletons in his cupboard. In September, he voluntarily handed back the Heisman Trophy as speculation mounted that the Trust was set to strip Bush of the award in what would have been an unprecedented move.

The long-term consequences for USC have been pretty extreme – as is the way with anyone who messes with the NCAA – but there has been no sign that Auburn fear their success will come back to haunt them.

Newton’s coach Gene Chizik has been aggressive in his defence of the 21-year-old and it is a testament to his talents that even though voters will opt for him with noses pinched, his victory margin will be huge.

And with athletes living by a strict code of ‘God-given talent’ over ethics, the adorably confident Newton’s fellow candidates will carry him shoulder high, his favourite place in the world.

John Riordan is a former Irish Examiner sport journalist, now working freelance in New York.

You can read his previous columns for thescore here.

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