Manziel, Newton have parallels, but resemblance only goes so far

Not long after the story broke Sunday that Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was reportedly under investigation by the NCAA, I got a call from a colleague in the media business.

"Are we looking at another Cam Newton here?" he asked.

It was an easy analogy to make. In 2010, Newton led Auburn to the SEC and BCS national titles. He did it under the cloud of an NCAA investigation into actions by his father, Cecil, who solicited money from another school (Mississippi State) for his son's services. In the middle of an intense media firestorm, Newton continued to play and ultimately won the Heisman Trophy. And there is no doubt that if Newton had been declared ineligible, Auburn would not have won the national championship.

Manziel, who became the first freshman to ever win the Heisman last December, faces a similar situation. He is the reason Texas A&M is in everybody's preseason top 10. He is the reason the school is pressing ahead with a $425 million renovation of Kyle Field. He is the reason the Aggies are getting ready to play one of the biggest home games in their history when they host Alabama on Sept. 14.

Newton and Manziel are both high-profile quarterbacks and their schools, then and now, have a helluva lot to lose if they don't play.

But there the resemblance of the two cases ends.

Remember that back in 2010, Auburn was five games into its 14-0 season when it received its first contact from the NCAA. In a letter dated Oct. 5, the NCAA asked for bank records, texts and emails from Newton, his father and other family members.

The news of the investigation finally broke right before a Nov. 16 game against Georgia.

The NCAA charged that former Mississippi State player Kenny Rogers had served as an agent for the Newton family. Rogers claimed that Cecil Newton told him that it would take up to $180,000 to secure the services of Cam Newton, who started his college career at Florida, transferred to junior college after some off-field issues, and was looking for a place to transfer.

Auburn's position was that its coaches had no contact with Rogers and that Cam Newton had no knowledge of his father's actions.

Cam Newton was eventually declared ineligible on the Tuesday before the SEC Championship Game. But the NCAA Reinstatement Committee reviewed the case and reinstated Newton the next day. He never missed a game.

Critics of the decision to let Newton play -- and there were many -- believed strongly that Cecil Newton's solicitation of Mississippi State through Rogers constituted a violation that should have rendered the quarterback ineligible to play at Auburn or anywhere else.

But at the end of the day the NCAA realized that the rules were not clear on the subject. If Cecil Newton had received money from Mississippi State, his son could have been ruled ineligible at Auburn. If Cecil Newton had solicited money from Auburn, his son could have been declared ineligible. But the NCAA did not have a rule that expressly prohibited a parent from soliciting from one school when the athlete actually goes to another school.

On July 26, 2011, the NCAA recommended to its Amateurism Cabinet that it broaden the definition of an agent to include a parent who solicits on behalf of the child. The rule also included a clause that such a solicitation would be a violation whether or not the child knew about it.

Unofficially, of course, it is known as the "Cam Newton Rule."

So the NCAA rules were murky on the subject when the Cam Newton decision was made. That is not the case for Johnny Manziel.

Either Manziel received payment for the things he signed or he did not. If he did, and if the NCAA can prove it, the rules are very clear. If he received more than $1,000 -- and some media reports say he got five figures -- he will sit for at least four games. Georgia's A.J. Green served a four-game suspension in 2010 for selling a game jersey for $1,000. An ESPN.com report on Tuesday said that an East Coast autograph broker claimed he paid Manziel $7,500 to sign about 300 mini and full-sized football helmets in January.

If the NCAA cannot prove Manziel received money for his signature, then at some point this season he is going to play. When that happens will be up to Texas A&M and when it feels comfortable that Manziel did not violate rules. Because if the school puts Manziel on the field and he's later declared ineligible, it could be forced to forfeit every game in which he participated.

There is one little potential wrinkle that makes this case similar to that of Cam Newton: What if money changed hands for Manziel's signature but it never touched Manziel's hands? What if it went to one of the "personal assistants" who travel with him? And what if Manziel didn't know -- or claims he didn't know -- that somebody else got money?

In that case, the NCAA might have to make yet another rule to cover this particular situation. Now do you understand why the rule book is so thick?

Here is one final way that the cases of Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel could be alike. Given Johnny's "colorful" behavior this summer, half the population is not going to give him the benefit of the doubt and has already made up its mind that he took the money. And if he plays the entire season, the radio talk shows are going to explode with callers convinced that he broke the rules and got away with it because he was a big-time quarterback with a lot of well-heeled people invested in his success.

Cam Newton is in the NFL now but his public persona still takes a hit from his experience at Auburn. It will always be with him.

The reality is that if Johnny Manziel plays this entire season it will be under a cloud of doubt for some people. It could -- make that probably will -- cost him a shot at another Heisman Trophy. This will always be a permanent asterisk by his name.

Is that fair? Probably not. But that is the way I see this playing out.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
 
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