Last week, Cam Newton, the sensational quarterback playing for Auburn, won the Heisman trophy. Newton’s been at the center of not a little controversy because his father, Cecil Newton, allegedly sought a payment of $100,000-$180,000 from the schools recruiting him. Cecil Newton has been demonized by the press, including John Osborne, my colleague here on Strollerderby for being a greedy and overbearing parent.
And yet, it’s not like anyone who pays even the littlest bit of attention to big time college sports, particularly college football and basketball, could say these programs are squeaky clean and there to support their student athletes. No. For big football and basketball schools, big money is at stake. It’s money that the athletes earn but don’t keep. The athletes participate with the hope that they’ll be rewarded with professional fame and, especially, fortune. But the road from college to pro-sports is long and unpredictable. So is a parent who tries to work the system to his family’s advantage, like Cecil Newton did, undermining his son or protecting his interests? Is he overparenting or appropriately parenting?In a post on The Daily Beast, Buzz Bissinger, who wrote Friday Night Lights, the book, thinks that Cecil Newton did the right thing by his family. His one complaint? That Newton didn’t ask for more. He writes:
“Yes, major college football could provide Cam Newton with a shot at the pros. Unless he got hurt, which happens all the time, or the even greater likelihood that he would never make the transition. Being great in college football has no correlation to being great or even mediocre as a professional. Just talk to the thousands who have been squashed like road kill.”
When I was thinking about this post, my colleague Madeline shared an interview with sports writer Greg Dorhmann about his new book Play Their Hearts Out about a youth basketball league in LA. Dohrmann followed a team assembled by a guy because he wanted to make a lot of money. And he did. His players started with him at 10 and 11 years old, they were mostly African American, many from single parents home struggling to get by. Some made it to division 1 basketball teams, some didn’t. The first comment on the interview site says of the success or failure of these kids, “It all comes down to parenting.” Dohrmann agreed. Parents who are involved, who stress the importance of school, who protect their kids from the greedy coaches and shoe companies who want to sign up teen phenoms to sell sneakers and coaches who want to make money from their players, these are the parents who help their kids negotiate the brutal system of pre-professional sports.
At one point in the interview with Dohrmann, though, the interviewer asks about sports in Orange County. There, the athletes are excellent, too, and the parents are presumably more affluent and stable. Well, Dohrmann jokes, in Orange County, the parents are the problem, not the solution.
So, here we are. When you’re a vulnerable parent, when you don’t have a lot of resources and you’re working a few jobs, it must be easy to lose your child to the dream of professional sports, a dream that’s unlikely to pan out even if it’s so much more alluring than school work. But if you’re a middle class or upper middle class parent, it seems just as easy to become the Billy Ray Cyrus of the sidelines.
I don’t know anything about Cam Newton or his family’s socio-economic situation, but I know that Auburn made a fortune from his play and will make even more whether or not Auburn beats Oregon on January 10th in the BCS title game. (I don’t understand anything about college football rankings except that everyone complains about them.) I know that the big time college sports programs are money making machines fueled by television ads and shoe and athletic gear companies. That machine feeds the agents and lawyers and coaches and the feeding starts young. The role of money in “amateur” sports is a truth that dares not speak its name. But the role of parents? Everyone has something to say about that.
I’m not so sure what I think about Cecil Newton. He broke the rules by asking for money, that’s for sure. Maybe a parent from a place like Orange County would’ve held out for the professional pay day. Maybe that parent could afford to. I don’t know. Sometimes parents try to capitalize on their children’s dreams, sometimes they’re trying to protect them. No matter which side of that line Cecil Newton is on, considering the playing field he and his son are on, his side of the story doesn’t strike me as all wrong, even if the NCAA says it is. What do you think?