Commentary

Could Heisman survive another hit?

Originally Published: November 16, 2010
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

In 1895 a vain, spiteful, humorless wisp of a man arrived at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama to coach football.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAuburn quarterback Cam Newton is the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

His name was John Heisman, future namesake of the most famous trophy in college football and perhaps of all American sport. And the college where he coached would later become Auburn University, home now of the most famous (and controversial) Heisman Trophy candidate, Cam Newton.

Heisman and Newton were born 120 years apart, but here they are in 2010, connected by coincidence, history and the growing mushroom cloud of alleged scandal. As the NCAA begin to pick and poke through Newton's recruiting baggage like TSA agents at O'Hare, you wonder how many more helmet-on-helmet shots the Heisman Trophy can take.

Little by little, Reggie Bush by Reggie Bush, Newton allegation by Newton allegation, the award seems to be losing some of its dignity. It was compromised by the Bush scandal and now it could be further devalued if the ongoing investigations into Newton's football past uncover, say, a paper trail of NCAA abuses.

Heisman ballots were mailed to voters on Monday. The finalists will be announced Dec. 6. Between now and then, 926 electors will have to pick between what they know and what is alleged ... what they've seen on the field and what they've read ... what they believe and what they don't want to believe.

Alabama running back Mark Ingram, who distinguished himself on the field and then at the awards podium with his poignant Heisman acceptance speech last December, is one of those 926 voters. A copy of his trophy sits on a security alarm-activated stand inside the Bama football complex. He sees it everyday as he makes his way to team meetings.

"Sometimes I walk by the trophy and, man, I can't even believe I won it," he said after Monday's practice. "It's a special fraternity of brothers. I'm just very blessed and appreciative that I'm part of it."

Bush was part of Heisman frat row, but then he got expelled. And if you live in Alabama, you can't swing a jersey without hitting someone with an opinion on the Newton situation. Wait, that's not true -- Ingram keeps his thoughts to himself.

"I really don't like to touch on that kind of thing," he said.

Fair enough. Just goes to show that these are uncomfortable times filled with uncomfortable choices. Had I known in 2005 what we first learned about Bush in 2006 (that he and his family received nearly $300,000 in gifts and money from a sports agent), his name wouldn't have come within the Santa Monica Freeway of my Heisman ballot. I would have voted for Traveler or one of the Song Girls before I wrote Bush's name.

But nobody had a clue, so Bush got a Heisman and second-place finisher Vince Young of Texas got short-sheeted. Now the award is vacated, as if that season, Bush, Young and the other finalist, Matt Leinart, never existed. Bush returned his trophy, but conveniently forgot to accept responsibility for kneecapping the USC football program.

I'm just asking, but what happens if some of the meat sticks to the bones of these Newton allegations? What if it turns out to be true, that he was the knowing or unknowing centerpiece of a six-figure auction for his football services? Then what?

After what happened with Bush (remember his denials?), Heisman voters will have to take a Newton leap of faith or take a pass. It isn't necessarily Newton's fault, but that's the reality of the situation.

The Heisman could stiff-arm the Bush fallout. But two vacated trophies in five years? I'm not sure how or if the Heisman could recover from that sort of embarrassment. It'd be like Johnny Knoxville winning an Oscar.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Shawn O'Connor/US PresswireMark Ingram doesn't think another scandal could tarnish the Heisman.

Again, we're talking about ifs.

If the NCAA finds wrongdoing ...

If the FBI, which is talking to principals in the case, discovers relevant facts ...

If the media keeps peeling back more layers to the Newton onion ...

The truth will eventually bubble to the surface. It almost always does. But it's doubtful that it will make its way there before the Dec. 11 Heisman presentation ceremony. That's because the NCAA investigatory process would lose a footrace to a glacier.

So the Heisman electors find themselves in the awkward position of not only having to vote the stats, but also their consciences. It basically says so right on the ballot:

The recipient must be in compliance with the bylaws defining an NCAA Student Athlete.

Bush wasn't in compliance, not even close, which is why USC voluntarily sent back its copy of the trophy. Still to be determined is if Newton's recruitment left bruise marks on the NCAA rules book.

The Heisman Trophy is cast in statuary bronze, but it isn't bulletproof. It can take a hit, but can it really take another eraser mark on the list of annual winners?

Ingram said yes. The trophy might be only 13½ inches tall and weigh just 25 pounds, but it's bigger, he said, than the Bush scandal, the Newton controversy and whatever else comes along.

"I don't think anything can take away from its significance," Ingram said. "Everybody knows what type of award it is. I think the Heisman Trophy Trust and everybody involved is going to keep it in good hands and make sure nothing tarnishes its name and its significance."

The good hands had better hold on tight. I have a feeling that Heisman voters and the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama are in for a choppy flight.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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