If you think political journalism is fraught with infighting, back-biting, rival slighting and loaded writing, may I direct you to the college athletics beat?
Auburn quarterback Cam Newton.
Big-time college sports, a multi-billion dollar industry fueled by the free labor of teenagers and people in their early 20s, is a natural breeding ground for corruption — and the journalistic opportunities to unearth said corruption. The latest story to capture our attention is one involving Auburn Quarterback Cam Newton.
As reported by The New York Times and ESPN, Newton's football services were allegedly offered, for a price, to Mississippi State.
But here begin the disclaimers:
— This hasn’t been proved.
— There is no indication that Cam Newton knew he was being offered, if he was.
— There is no indication that Kenny Rogers, who played at Mississippi State in the early '80s and now is a quasi-agent, really did ask Mississippi State boosters for money — and even if he did he may have been pulling a scam, with no real way to influence Cam Newton. Whistleblower John Bond, a quarterback for Mississippi State in the early '80s, may have misinterpreted Rogers' part in the affair.
All the murky, yet-to-be known data points make for a very shaky story.
But the fact is that the NCAA is looking into this story, and subsequent reports about Cam Newton both call into question his integrity and document his dismissal from the University of Florida for either stealing a laptop, or as he describes it, merely possessing stolen goods and attempting to hinder a police investigation into the theft.
When it comes to the current charges, it seems that who you believe is largely dependant on who you root for. There is a tradition, as time honored as dotting the "i" in Ohio State, of greeting any college football allegation with a thorough denunciation of those who reported it and a careful examination of the motives behind such a story.
If you look back on any landmark scandal — from the payments that led to Reggie Bush returning the Heisman trophy to SMU being given the most severe sanction in NCAA history — you'll see a chorus of boosters and fans crying yellow journalism.
Of course college misdemeanors that were initially reported as felonies have also met with suspicion. The two go-to tactics in questioning the motives behind a damning story are to allege that the reporting is merely designed to sell newspapers and to surmise that all the charges against a team emanate from their on-field rival.
Both those things are happening with the Cam Newton story. Gregg Doyel of CBS alleges that his colleagues at ESPN and The New York Times are engaged in journalistic malpractice. Doyel would probably object to the word "colleagues," judging from the way he explained his motivations in a radio interview: "I'm throwing ESPN and the vaunted New York Times under the bus because they both suck." And, he added, "I don’t fear or respect anyone in the media so screw 'em all." Doyel's column, picked up on many blogs, asserted that Kenny Rogers never talked to John Bond in a Cash-for-Cam bid.
Doyel's argument focuses on a quote from John Bond’s lawyer saying "John Bond never named Kenny Rogers." The New York Times and ESPN say that Rogers did talk to Bond. Bond's official statement says that he was "contacted by a former teammate," but doesn't name which one.
Bond's lawyer Phillip Abernathy e-mailed me this:
"Mike, if you do not have a copy of John Bond's statement, I will be happy to send it to you. You will see from the statement that John did not identify any individual. At this time, he cannot comment beyond that statement. (That is also what I told Gregg Doyle.)"
In trying to ferret out the truth you may wish to listen to what I believe to be the lone John Bond interview. It lasts less than 4 minutes
The hosts of the program on Atlanta radio station 680 The Fan never pressed Bond for a proper name as to who approached him. Frustratingly, this seems like more of an oversight on the hosts' part than any agreed upon ground rules that Kenny Rogers (or whomever) would not be named. You can listen to the conversation and come away thinking it was about Kenny Rogers, but his name was not uttered.
In summation, I think it's a bit strong to suggest that The New York Times and ESPN blew the story based on the following six words: "John Bond never named Kenny Rogers." Those words can be literally true in a number of ways.
Maybe Rogers and Bond never had a direct conversation. Maybe Rogers and Bond did have a direct conversation but Bond did not implicate Kenny Rogers by name, leaving it to investigators to connect the dots.
Either way, college football fans are in a very weird situation today. As Cam Newton solidifies his status as a Heisman trophy front runner, and as Auburn maintains its status as a team in line to play for the national championship, the interaction of a pair of men who were teammates during Ronald Reagan's first term are fueling the biggest story of the current college football season.
Some of the morning's other headlines about this saga:
— USA TODAY: "Cheating, Recruiting Charges Hang Over Auburn, Newton."
— Montgomery Advertiser: "Auburn QB Newton Under Fire Again."
— Sports Illustrated: "Newton Allegations Can Impact Heisman Race, But Not BCS Race."
(Mike Pesca covers sports for NPR. Posted by Mark Memmott.)