So all of a sudden, the Cam Newton redemption story and the Cam Newton national championship chase story and the stirring tale of how Auburn quarterback Cam Newton could be the first-ever junior college transfer to win the Heisman Trophy are all in danger of being re-cast from something unique into one of the hoariest clichés in college football: the dirty recruitment story. And all faster than you can say "The going rate for a blue-chip college quarterback these days is $180,000?"
Get with it. That's actually the 10 percent-off discount price that Mississippi State allegedly was offered by a former Bulldogs player named Kenny Rogers, who claimed to be representing Newton in December when the quarterback was making his recruiting visits. Rogers supposedly told a former Mississippi State teammate, John Bond -- who says he turned Rogers into the school, which in turn turned Rogers into the Southeastern Conference and NCAA -- that other schools were willing to pay $200,000 for Newton. The discount was because Newton wanted to play for Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen, his former quarterback coach at Florida.
How nice is Rogers? An alum-turned-shakedown artist with a heart.
Every time you're tempted to buy back into the so-called magic and unjaded exuberance of big-time college sports and suspend any desire to look behind the curtain, back where the sausage and head cheese is really getting made, something like this story comes along to snap you back to your senses and remind you what a fool you've been.
You can't ignore the labyrinthine corruption in college sports if you try.
Somewhere out there beyond the perfectly mowed stadiums and the tailgaters in the parking lot and the 100,000 fans still snaking along down the two-lane interstate hoping to get to the game on time and the shivering kids camping out in tents in the quad to be the first in line for tickets, there's a thriving underground economy of players and parents, coaches and boosters, street agents and pro agents and wannabe insiders all trying to get paid. And all dirty.
So in a way, it isn't necessary to forgo an emotional response to these allegations until the NCAA's findings someday roll in. Regardless of whether investigators lacking subpoena power can prove Rogers really did approach Bond last December and, according to Bond, say that for Mississippi State to land Newton, "It would take some cash," the sobering truth still is that everything ESPN.com reported on Thursday has happened in some variation in college sports before.
This is a subtly tweaked version of the Reggie Bush story playing out in real time, as an ESPN colleague said Thursday night. But it's the accelerated version. USC at least won the national title (since vacated), and Bush was actually awarded the Heisman Trophy (which he has since returned) before he was beset by allegations that he and his family took money from a marketing agent while he still played for the Trojans.
Newton is the clear front-runner for this year's Heisman. He's the country's most scintillating two-way threat at quarterback, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound strongman that one NFL personnel man has already compared to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- with foot speed. He also has Auburn sitting at 9-0 and No. 2 in the BCS standings.
How, or if, all that changes now remains to be seen.
Auburn plays the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga this Saturday in a break from its SEC schedule. A showdown with archrival and defending national champion Alabama and possible SEC and national championship title games loom after that.
On Thursday, we learned that Newton and the Auburn coaching staff have actually known at least since July that Bond's report of Rogers' alleged overtures had been moved along to SEC and NCAA investigators. So far, it certainly hasn't hindered Newton's performance.
But how will this news affect the rest of the team? Isn't it possible that Auburn is risking game forfeits somewhere down the road by allowing him to play while the NCAA investigates the Mississippi State allegations? Will recently burned Heisman voters shy away from Newton now, no matter how well he closes out the season? Will he be hounded by fans waving dollar bills and crude signs at him everywhere he goes the rest of his career?
All those sharpies off working the underground economy have a sneering retort to that: "Who cares? Come April, he'll be long gone and the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft."
Again, we'll see.
Newton's personal backstory has a few more quirks than most of these tales. He's a preacher's son, for starters -- that's a new twist. His father, Cecil Newton, presides over five different churches in Georgia. One of them, the Holy Zion Center of Deliverance in Newnan, was in danger of being demolished by city officials before needed renovations were completed this spring, a few months after Cam's recruitment. Imagine that.
Cam began his playing career at the University of Florida but sat for two years and left in the wake of being charged with burglary, larceny and obstruction of justice. Police have said they found a stolen laptop in his possession in his dorm room. Newton -- who admitted only to buying the $1,000 computer for $120 -- has said he left Florida because Tim Tebow was returning for his senior year.
Newton wound up at Blinn College, a junior college in Texas, and led the team to the 2009 national title in his only season there.
Mississippi State and Oklahoma were the only other schools Newton visited before he chose Auburn.
Cecil Newton told ESPN.com that he first met Rogers two years ago when his son left Florida, but added, "If Rogers tried to solicit money from Mississippi State, he did it on his own, without our knowledge."
Rogers, as of Friday morning, still hadn't commented on Bond's allegations. But Rogers could have other problems in addition to the NCAA investigation. He runs a Chicago-based business called Elite Football Preparation, which purports to match high school athletes with college programs. The NFL Players Association confirmed to ESPN.com that it is looking into whether Rogers has misrepresented himself as having some relationship with the NFLPA or violated any of its rules, too. There's also the question of exactly what Rogers' relationship is with Chicago-based pro agent Ian Greengross, whom Rogers says pays him $2,000 a month.
And the plot thickens again
This is what it's come to in college football. And it's not just in the SEC, where football and scandals have long marched in lockstep. USC is on probation, and Michigan's once-pristine program just got slapped with a third year, too, which must have Bo Schembechler throwing clipboards and headsets in his grave. Already this year, we've had other agent-related problems at North Carolina and Georgia, not to mention the Nick Saban pimp speech, which prompted a right-back-at-you round of commentary along these lines: Who is Nick Saban to distance himself from the pimps?
Now, even a pastor's son walks around shadowed by suspicions.
If you love or even like college football, it can wear on you.
But nothing should surprise us anymore.
Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.