The elephant has left the room.
Cam Newton can play. Auburn's wins from this season won't be vacated, and the Tigers can face South Carolina on Saturday in the SEC Championship Game without the specter of Newton's eligibility hanging overhead. Newton can win the Heisman Trophy. Those are the immediate repercussions of Wednesday's decision by the NCAA to declare Newton eligible despite the fact that Newton's father, Cecil, tried to sell his commitment to Mississippi State for a six-figure sum during his recruitment from junior college.
The longer-ranging repercussions are less cut-and-dried.
First, the NCAA's release implied that the investigation into Newton's recruitment remains open. The obvious assumption is that if Newton was for sale to Mississippi State, he was for sale to everyone. At this point, there is no evidence of that. There also is no evidence that anyone at Auburn did anything wrong. The NCAA enforcement staff probably will keep digging for a while, though.
Also, by doing the right thing based on the available evidence, the NCAA has opened a gaping loophole in its own enforcement process. Any player who is for sale during his recruitment now may shift blame to a parent, an uncle or a crooked family friend and say, "Well, you let Cam Newton play." USC tailback Dillon Baxter should be furious. His school held him out of a game for receiving a golf cart ride from an agent. Any player who has had to sit a game because someone considered by the NCAA to be a booster or agent bought lunch has a legitimate beef. My guess is that if Auburn isn't in a position to win the national title, the NCAA would have suspended Newton for a game or two, but the stakes were just too big -- especially considering undefeated Auburn got jobbed out of playing for the national title by the BCS system only six years ago.
How big is the loophole? Ask Sonny Vaccaro, the basketball power-broker. "The NCAA just gave cover to every middle man in the country," Vaccaro told Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports. "The kids never know. In all my years, I've never heard of a kid being involved in the negotiation. You think they ask? Of course not. Their mom asks. Their coach asks. Their cousin asks. This is crazy."
It would be easy to criticize the NCAA for ripping out its own teeth, but the hearts of the reinstatement staff were in the correct place. Given the available facts, the younger Newton was a pawn in all this, and he shouldn't be punished for the sins of his father. The NCAA release said no evidence exists to indicate Cam Newton knew of the scheme. Even if he did, could he have stopped it? Think back to when you were Newton's age. Could you have defied your father? Some might have, but most people wouldn't have.
As for Cecil Newton, who claims to be a man of God, we can only hope his God reserves a special punishment for fathers who pimp out their own sons.
The NCAA did not have to declare Cam Newton eligible. It could have stuck to the letter of its law and declared that Newton was ineligible the moment his father laid out a pay-for-play scheme in Starkville, Miss., in November 2009. But the organization -- which gets bashed a lot by myself and by others for hypocrisy -- truly did act in the best interest of the player here. Newton couldn't stop his father from asking for money. Why should his eligibility suffer?
Most assuredly, Auburn fans will blame the media for dragging Newton's name through the mud this past month. His arrest while at Florida for buying a stolen laptop and then pitching it out a window when the police came was dredged up again. The arrest happened. The facts are not in dispute. That's fair game.
The blame is misplaced. None of that gets brought up if Cecil Newton hadn't tried to turn his own son into an ATM.
My son is 15 months old. If he shows an astounding aptitude for a skill at any point during his formative years, I would never risk his eligibility to express that skill for a quick payday. If I did, I hope he would never speak to me again.
It will be interesting to see if Cecil accompanies his son to the Heisman Trophy ceremony next week. Will he feel any pride watching his son win the award? Will he feel any shame for ruining his son's name for a few pieces of silver?
One thing is certain now. This mess won't keep Newton from winning the Heisman Trophy. Nor should it.
I'm a Heisman voter. After Wednesday's ruling, I logged on to the Heisman balloting website to see if the Heisman Trust provided any last-minute guidelines for voters. While the Heisman mission statement -- which is tucked under a tab on the Heisman Web site -- mentions "excellence with integrity," nothing in the balloting process references character.
The following sentence appears on the balloting login page: "The Heisman Memorial Trophy Award is presented each year to the Outstanding College Football Player of the United States." Nothing else resembling a voting guideline appears on the page.
Newton almost certainly is the nation's most outstanding player. Without him, Auburn is an eight- or nine-win team. He leads the SEC in rushing and passing efficiency. If someone held a draft to field college teams based only on this season's stats, Newton undoubtedly would be the first choice.
On the actual ballot page, this guideline appears: "In order that there will be no misunderstanding regarding the eligibility of a candidate, the recipient of the award MUST be a bona fide student of an accredited college or university including the United States Academies. The recipient must be in compliance with the bylaws defining an NCAA Student-Athlete."
According to the NCAA on Wednesday, Newton is eligible.
Some have said Newton's past -- the Florida arrest and a report that he faced expulsion at Florida for academic cheating -- should preclude him from winning the award. Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith took $500 from a booster and got suspended earlier in his career, but that transgression didn't stop Smith from winning the Heisman in a landslide just four years ago.
Meanwhile, Newton's closest competitor for the Heisman is Oregon tailback LaMichael James, who was arrested earlier this year for a domestic incident involving his girlfriend. The initial headlines made James look awful, but the facts of the case were less severe. Read the sentencing memorandum and decide for yourself how you feel about the incident, but know this: Anyone who votes for James but leaves Newton off his ballot is a hypocrite.
But while Newton should collect his trophy next week in New York, no one should breathe easy quite yet. "The reinstatement process is likely to conclude prior to the close of an investigation," the NCAA's release said. "It is NCAA policy not to comment on current, pending or potential investigations." Translation: The investigation remains open.
The NCAA reinstatement staff's ruling blew away the dark clouds that would have blanketed Saturday's SEC Championship. It makes it possible for Newton to accept the Heisman without offering a string of no comments. It makes it possible for the Tigers, if they beat South Carolina, to prepare for the national title game without having to answer constant questions about Newton's eligibility.
In the future, the investigation into this case will continue. Meanwhile, the NCAA will have to amend its bylaws to close the massive loophole it opened Wednesday or risk becoming a complete joke.
In the short term, life will return to normal. In the long term, a lot of things will never be the same.