Senior Writer

In college football, as in life, cheating is worth it


I'm going to give you a choice -- the choice of a lifetime.

I'm going to hook you up with the woman/man of your dreams. I'm going to buy you a $250,000 Ferrari. I'm going to put you in a $1 million home to house it.

All you have to do is give it back because it isn't yours. In fact, law enforcement may want to have a word. It will be a few years or maybe just a few months of high living but it's all going away -- in an instant. In fact, you may regret you ever loved, drove or lived.

It's safe to assume Auburn fans will take a title any way they can get, especially after the 2004 BCS snub. (AP)  
It's safe to assume Auburn fans will take a title any way they can get, especially after the 2004 BCS snub. (AP)  
Was it worth it?

Before you answer, let me introduce to a guy named Faust. He's the one of German legend who made the deal with the devil, not Gerry, the former high school coach who fell on his face at Notre Dame. If they have a common trait, it was being overambitious.

That's kind of where college athletics have been for a while. Every day there is that internal dialogue between athlete/coach/administrator and his or her conscience: Is it worth it? The answer keeps coming back: Yes, absolutely!

We are a nation of instant gratification. We want it all now and damn the consequences. Go back in time seven years ago. Ask any random Southern California fan at that point if they would take two national championships and a couple of Heismans in return for a crippling NCAA probation.

If the answer is anything but yes, they are lying. They would take it. You would take it. I would take it. Auburn would take it. That's essentially the issue as the season of Cam Newton, Auburn and college football hangs in the balance. No matter what happens at Auburn, what you see before you day after day in college athletics is that Faustian argument: Is a championship worth cheating for?

This is not a judgment of Auburn. This is a judgment of us. If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'. That's not just NASCAR or the SEC talking. It qualifies as the first sentence in our United States athletic bible. In the beginning, there was chicanery ... Our heroes are telling you it's worth it. Point shaving, steroids, corked bats. More steroids. For God's sake, they've made a sport out of street brawls. What used to get you arrested now gets you paid. Thank you, MMA.

Remember the biggest story of the season before Cam-ouflage? Josh Luchs admitted to paying at least 30 college players. It was worth it for Ryan Leaf, who allegedly took money from Luchs. Leaf became a first-round choice before he was a first-round bust. So what? The signing bonus still spends as much as the $300-$700 a month Luchs said he gave Leaf back in college.

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Last year it was worth it for Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant to lie to the NCAA. He sat out almost all of the season. His character and draft position took a hit. But first-round money is first-round money.

The NFLPA is being asked to consider that suspensions and/or fines follow players to the pros. It is seen as the one, true deterrent for those who take benefits from agents or their runners in college. Let me get this straight: The NCAA wants the players union to penalize its newest members, thus limiting their earning power? Good luck with that one.

There isn't enough of a downside to cheating. You want to keep a Reggie Bush situation from repeating itself? Make coaches more accountable. Suspend them along with players in major infractions cases. They take the credit when things are going good. When things go sour, suddenly they're not responsible for 105 kids 24 hours a day. You can't have it both ways, fellas.

Hell, Tennessee's Bruce Pearl flat-out lied to the NCAA and kept his job.

In this Newton case, SEC compliance officials may have some explaining to do. If Newton is later judged to have competed while ineligible, at least half of this now seems to be on the conference. Mississippi State released a statement Thursday saying it contacted the league in January about "an issue" regarding Newton. More specific information was provided by Mississippi State in July. That's seemingly more than enough time to decide whether the national junior college player of the year should be allowed on the field.

The NCAA is almost telling us that cheating is worth it. SMU's death penalty 23 years ago sent the proper message. Lawyer up. SMU's case gave rise to a cottage industry of attorneys and former enforcement officials who specialize in helping schools keep NCAA penalties to a minimum. The culture isn't always one of straight-up compliance. Sometimes it's not who you know, it's what you know -- about the NCAA manual. USC, for example, is still appealing.

The underlying feeling is that the NCAA doesn't have the stomach to apply the death penalty anymore. Cheaters may have wised up but so have schools. They have learned how to navigate the waters toward contrition. Anybody remember that Alabama is currently on probation for the fourth time in 14 years? For the second time in seven years? The latest penalty handed down in June 2009 was so severe that the Tide squeezed in a national championship last season.

On some level that has to be going through the minds of those at Auburn. If Newton or his father didn't take the money, great. If they did, why sit the kid now? We're 10 games into the season. Let's ride it out.

This is Auburn, which still hurts from the BCS snub in 2004. This is the program that constantly lives in the shadow of the Crimson Tide. The Tigers are so close to a championship they can practically print the game programs. Again, this is no way disparaging Newton because we have no one on the record nor any paper trail that shows he or his father took money.

This is a new media age. It's just different outlets that are going to find you. Remember that Tiger Woods was essentially outed by the National Enquirer. Jose Canseco's largely panned book Juiced became the basis for congressional hearings that led to increased drug testing in Major League Baseball. The upheavals happen a little faster these days, and don't come from traditional media.

The message, though, remains the same: Tiger, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds all reportedly cheated in different ways. At last check, they were still rich.

Either Auburn believes -- or has been led to believe -- that Newton is clean, and the school is rolling the dice or it just doesn't care. Whatever the case, there is every possibility that in two months the nation's best will be headed to the NFL and Auburn will have its championship. If that's the case, bring it on, NCAA. The games were won on the field and any amount of forfeiting wins or scholarships cannot take that away.

Will it have been worth it?

Forget the Fausts, ask yourselves. Then admit it. That Ferrari sure was smooth.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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