In the South, we care about college football a lot more than you do. So much so that it's our drug, our prohibition era liquor, our own illicit underground economy.
Sure there are rules that prohibit the best college football players from being paid to play. But those rules are merely obstacles to be overcome, the money will find a way to reach its desired object. The college football world has cast its gaze upon Auburn's Cam Newton. Whether Newton received money to play for Auburn -- or anywhere for that matter -- has become the top story in the final full month of the season. The only wonder about the Newton imbroglio is that it's any sort of surprise at all.
Tuesday night, I sat down on my couch to watch an extraordinary ESPN documentary about the nation's number one football recruit, Marcus Dupree from Philadelphia, Mississippi. The story was set in the early 1980s, but the rhythms of the piece are timeless in a region where players are still being bought and sold based on their gridiron potential.
Watch the long, loping strides as Dupree breaks into the open field, runs over defenders, and streaks into the end zone. Then close your eyes for a moment, put the film in HD, and you're watching Auburn's Cam Newton running roughshod over SEC defenses.
Just as Dupree emerged on the field at Oklahoma for a brief, shining moment, a college football comet streaking across the Southern night sky, so too has Cam Newton become a college football shooting star, burning brightly on the village on the Plains, in less than three months.
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Watching the documentary, the parallels between Marcus Dupree and Cam Newton became endless, a mirror held up to reflect how little has changed in the football-crazed swath of land beneath the Mason-Dixon line. Dupree and Newton were both otherworldly stars, giant hulks of men who set hearts aflutter across the region.
From poor families, both men came to see their talents as a way to reward their families. Dupree's mom wanted a new double-wide from Oklahoma? She got a new double-wide from Oklahoma. Asked how much money it would take to land Dupree in the documentary, a recruiter said $150,000. That was in 1982. Considering inflation, an alleged demand of $180,000 for Cam Newton to play for Mississippi State in 2010 may well have been a huge bargain.
Religion and football are never far from each other in these Southern morality stories either. One of the best quotes on the matter comes from Bill Curry's wife who, upon arriving at Alabama, told her minister, "Well, football is a religion down here." The minister paused for a moment, cleared his throat and responded, "Oh, no, it's much more important than that."
Not surprisingly, Dupree found himself attached to a shady reverend who attempted to use the star running back for his own devices, encouraging him to enroll at Southern Miss and abandon Oklahoma. Meanwhile Cam Newton's own daddy, a preacher, is at the center of an NCAA investigation that includes allegations that money may have been funneled through his church in exchange for Cam's services.
Both men, separated by 28 years, are illustrations of an immutable truth -- sending top athletes to college instead of allowing them to turn professional at 18 creates an underground economy. Instead of permitting players to cash in on their market value, as we allow those with great talents in all other walks of life -- Taylor Swift isn't singing in the chorus at Vanderbilt -- we require these athletes to serve apprenticeships in football and basketball.
Those apprenticeships happen to occur at colleges. And in order to get a player to go to the right college? Well, let's just say that some Southern football boosters and fans know that money makes any school look more attractive to the best players. (And I'm not intending to say that players are only bought and sold in the South, just that people care about college football more down here, so more players are bought and sold than anywhere else).
The NCAA has an impossible job, just like the police do when it comes to stopping the flow of illegal drugs, and just like the police did in the days of prohibition. Only at least in those situations, the police are attempting to stop something that is illegal. For the most part, there's nothing illegal about violating NCAA rules on amateurism, you just lose your eligibility to play college sports. So the South's attempt to create an underground economy for paying football talent isn't even illegal.
Why do players get paid in contravention of the rules?
Because demand creates supply, it's a simple rule of economics. Every southern school demands great players and great players are in limited supply. So those top players are in great demand. Lots of companies make billions by profiting off the periphery of that demand -- university athletic departments, apparel companies, video game companies, recruiting websites, you name it and great football talent makes lots of people rich.
Except, you guessed it, the people with the actual talent. Is it any wonder that some players and their associates see the money others are making off of them and see no harm in cashing in by selling their services? Isn't that what virtually everyone eventually does, sell their employment services to the highest bidder? Only most of us don't run a 4.4 40, weigh over 230 pounds, and put our greatest asset at risk on every snap of the football.
How many lawyers would take a trial for free if they knew that at any moment they might lose the ability to speak? Not many, how valuable is a trial lawyer without a voice? How many surgeons would operate on someone for free if they knew that at any moment they might get the tremors and be unable to deftly wield a scalpel for the rest of their lives? Not many either, right?
So are we really surprised when top college athletes choose to cash in on their talents rather than perform for free? As Marcus Dupree showed us, great football talent is a fickle thing, here today, gone tomorrow.
The title of last night's ESPN documentary was, "The Best That Never Was," a quote that came from Dupree's coach at Oklahoma, Barry Switzer. As the investigation into Cam Newton continues, Auburn fans are becoming increasingly terrified that this year's Auburn season might well become the season that never was, quarterbacked by Cam Newton, the 2010 college football world's modern-day version of the best that never was in college football.
Twenty-eight years after Dupree electrified crowds across the South, Cam Newton is doing the same. And 28 years from now, in 2038, someone new will be running circles around the competition sending Southern crowds into bouts of euphoria. That player may well end up being investigated by the NCAA for receiving improper benefits as well.
The only wonder? Some people will still be surprised.
Follow Clay Travis on Twitter here. With All That and a Bag of Mail returning for the football season, you can e-mail him questions at Clay.Travis@gmail.com.