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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Goodman: Is Cam Newton what we want college football to become?

Goodman: Auburn’s 27-20 loss to Georgia was long over inside Jordan-Hare Stadium, and Cam Newton was one of the final people to walk off the grass.

He moved tenderly, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner for Auburn, and so much so that it appeared like his gait carried some pain. For hours and hours on Saturday, Newton poured his heart into promoting Auburn University, and now his enormous frame could only move at a labored, ambling pace.


I almost wanted to help him out of the stadium, but there were plenty of people around him to do the job.

Why is college football so special?

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It’s game-winning touchdowns like the one Georgia tight end Brock Bowers scored against Auburn with under three minutes to play, but really college football is beloved because of reasons captured in the scene of a tired Cam Newton leaving Jordan-Hare Stadium 13 years after he bent the SEC to his will and won a national championship.

It was a big recruiting weekend for Auburn. This is a rebuilding year, so the results on the field don’t really matter. People probably don’t like hearing that, but a close loss for Auburn against Georgia is something new coach Hugh Freeze can use in a recruiting pitch.

Look what we can do with someone else’s players?

I’m sure those weren’t Freeze’s exact words to recruits after the game, but that’s what everyone should be thinking.

The future seems bright for Auburn, or at least the potential is there for better days ahead. Auburn made a compelling case for all that stuff, and it appears like Freeze is moving in the right direction. Good for Auburn. War Damn Eagle. In the end, Auburn — just like everyone else — will have to pay a lot of money to potential recruits to be good at football.

That’s just the reality of the game in this new era of NIL collectives and the transfer portal, and as a sports columnist it’s not my job to dance around the truth.

Elite recruits who are being coveted by multiple top schools get cash these days, of course, but here’s the thing. That’s always been the case. What’s different now is that players have more power, and that’s pretty frightening to the people in charge. There are a lot of powerbrokers out there who want people to believe that money to players is suddenly going to destroy college football, and I’m here in defense of the players to say those people are selling fear for their own agendas.

Alabama coach Nick Saban, for example, needs to stop talking about money ruining a sport that has given him millions and millions because it makes him look out of touch at best and something like Dabo Swinney at worst.

Saban’s personal spin on players making money is insulting for people who have working brains.

Early this week, Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith testified before Congress that recruits were — EGADS! — asking for $5,000 up front to take recruiting visits. I just had to laugh. Appearance fees? Something tells me that politicians probably didn’t consider an exchange of money just for showing up to be the latest sign of the apocalypse.

They probably thought $5,000 was pretty cheap.

If recruits can ask for retainers for their services, then absolutely they should do it, and I’m pretty sure every graduate of Alabama’s law school would support the economics of those arrangements.

More money for players is only going to make college football better for everyone, and my proof is Cam Newton all these years later.

There was a point in his life when detractors of Newton at places like Georgia and Alabama said the last time Newton walked off a field as a player for Auburn would be the final time he ever acknowledged even attending Auburn University. Where were those people when a leg-weary Newton got some assistance from a family member to walk up a ramp on Saturday evening while he was leaving Jordan-Hare Stadium?

Newton and his family exited the field on the west side of the stadium. That meant he had to walk up a hill to the campus. To help Newton up the incline, an older family member with a cane used the walking aid to push Newton from behind. That’s how entirely exhausted Newton was after the game. He had given Auburn everything he had.

In that moment, the Newton who ran around during the game like an official Auburn mascot on a cheerleading scholarship was no longer around. This was a different person, and not the character of himself that Newton plays for the crowds and the cameras. It was the version of Newton that few get to see, or at least the side of the man who so many people refuse to acknowledge.

It was the version of Newton that I’ll remember for the rest of my life because seeing him vulnerable and with his family was so touching. People forget. During his one season at Auburn, Newton was the center of a national controversy. It was because people assumed — right or wrong — that Newton was paid to play for Auburn.

I can say this with certainty. They didn’t pay him enough.

Did you see Newton’s wardrobe for the game? Every detail was considered. He thought of everything and it was all to market his alma mater. Newton wore a one-of-kind, handmade, bespoke Auburn-themed hat that made him look like the Star Wars version of Robin Hood. The hat went perfectly with Newton’s orange jumper. Newton may or may not be the greatest player in the history of college football, but he’s without question the best dressed of those who can make a claim.

They ran that man’s name through the mud back in 2010 and some still try. Did money ruin Newton’s passion for Auburn and college football? Does everyone understand how stupid that sounds?

What makes college football so special? It’s not the coaches, and it’s not even the scores. It’s the rivalry games and it’s the generational investments by the people like Newton who return again and again and again to enrich the culture of uniquely American tradition.

Just think how fun games are going to be at Jordan-Hare Stadium when Auburn is actually good at football again.

“It hurts in there right now and that’s really good to see,” said Auburn coach Hugh Freeze about his post-game locker room.

He then emphasized that perspective by adding that growth happens “more in the valley than the mountaintop.”

Coach-speak is nice. The recruits hear that all the time, though. Words are cheap. Cash is king and no one will ever forget watching Prince Newton of the Loveliest Village leading the Auburn student section in cheers against No.1 Georgia during a rebuilding year for the Tigers.

Newton’s body paid for his effort, and it showed. He was hurting after the game, but he didn’t mind. Some will say that he did it all for Auburn, but that’s not entirely true. He also did it for the small child who was holding his hand as he walked out of the stadium. He wanted that child to know how much Auburn meant to the family.

In the words that Saban used this week to describe paying recruits for visits, is this what we want college football to become?

Yes, please. More of that.

Joseph Goodman is the lead sports columnist for the Alabama Media Group, and author of “We Want Bama”, a book about togetherness, wild times and rum. You can find him on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.

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