- Associated Press - Thursday, December 9, 2010

The only way the Heisman Trophy still means anything after this weekend is if the football cradled in the statue’s left arm is replaced by a bag overflowing with cash. After all, nothing says college football these days like the Benjamins.

Every time we think the sport has run out of things to sell, it auctions off another shred of dignity. Take a look at what’s about to happen (again) to what used to be the game’s biggest individual award.

There’s no suspense surrounding who will win the Heisman come Saturday _ Auburn’s Cam Newton in a landslide _ only whether his would-be shakedown-artist father, Cecil, would show up for the ceremony in New York and make the mockery complete. He said late Thursday he won’t. Too bad. He should.

Cam Newton sounds like a good son, but he’s not a very convincing liar. In his latest remarks on the pay-for-play scandal that’s enveloped his family for the better part of a year, Newton told ESPN that he didn’t know his father was shopping him around; not only that, they haven’t broached the topic, even after the allegations made headlines six weeks ago. Newton said they discussed everything else but that.

“Honestly, we haven’t,” he said, “and that’s not something I’m trying to get clarity of because I really don’t care. At the end of the day, I can look him in the eye and know he has my best interests at heart.”

It’s a lousy story, but apparently good enough for the NCAA, at least for the time being.

Never mind that its investigators say they can prove that Cecil Newton asked Mississippi State for nearly $200,000 in exchange for his son’s signature. Or that family members caught getting “benefits” is why Reggie Bush was shamed into giving back his Heisman just a few months ago, and why Southern California will be on double-secret probation for the next few years.

A rule might be a rule, but in the Newton case, the NCAA said it can’t prove any money actually changed hands, let alone why Cam Newton _ or anybody else at Auburn for that matter _ never bothered to ask Cecil about the various alleged payment-plan schemes. So they cleared Cam to play and advised Dad to stay far away from Auburn, and apparently New York would have been far enough.

In the official statement, the NCAA said its decision was “based on the information available to the reinstatement staff at this time.” That means the enforcement people could still whack Newton and Auburn if more compelling evidence turns up. Remember, the Bush case dragged on for years, too. They just aren’t going to do it while Newton is a walking, talking ATM for everybody from the vendors in the stands to the Bowl Championship Series czars throwing down hors d’oeuvres in the skyboxes on national title night.

Cynics charge the NCAA has become nothing but a lapdog to the game’s monied interest. But they’d have to concede it’s learned how to roll over without much complaint, too. That’s because the people running the organization get their orders from the university presidents who took control of the NCAA more than a decade ago, along with a mandate to clean up the sport and put an end to what was already being called an “athletics arm race.” What those presidents did was put away the brooms and ramp up the budgets instead.

They paid coaches more than entire faculty departments, then let the BCS hijack their most valuable property, the postseason, in exchange for hefty payouts to their schools. When their universities and conferences sloughed off decades-long loyalties in pursuit of a quick buck, the only integrity they likely insisted on were cashier’s checks. And with so many conflicts-of-interest to keep track of _ TV contracts, sponsorship deals _ they are decidedly less interested in each other’s faux pas than ever.

Eligibility? Agents trolling campuses for easy marks and-or future clients? Lack of institutional control?

The guys in charge might pretend to be pained, but nobody really worries about that amateur stuff any more, least of all the kids on whose backs the empire rests. They, too, can see college football for what it’s finally become: the NFL’s de facto minor league. Small wonder all those notions seem so last century now.

Newton deserves the Heisman. He was hands-down the best player in college football this season, even if his dad was somewhere lurking in the background with his palm always turned up.

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