Reporters at competing news organizations did not get together and decide to wage war on the reputation of Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. Leads were followed. Sources were interviewed. Stories were written.
What has emerged is a quite-unflattering portrait of Newton that you can choose to believe or not. One set of stories is pegged to the word of a booster at a rival school who admitted last week that there were two middlemen between him and the man accused of shopping Newton's services to that school. Another story cites an anonymous source as saying Newton was caught cheating multiple times while enrolled at Florida and was on the verge of expulsion when he transferred to Blinn College in Texas. Newton and his family have denied the first set of stories. They have not denied the second.
Newton has himself admitted that while a student at Florida in 2008, he threw a stolen laptop out the window of his dorm room when police came to question him about it. Newton has repeatedly denied stealing the laptop, which was taken from an unlocked room in Florida's Springs Complex dorm. Newton told SI.com in April that he bought the laptop for $120. Later, he told ESPN.com he bought it for "about $500." Newton entered a pre-trial diversion program that settled the legal matter.
What does all of this mean for Newton and the Tigers? On the field, it means nothing. The NCAA is investigating the first set of allegations, but it has yet to find any wrongdoing on the part of Auburn, Newton or Newton's family. Assuming it doesn't, Newton is free to play for the Tigers. If he leads them past Georgia this week, Alabama on Nov. 26 and Florida or South Carolina in the SEC title game on Dec. 4, Auburn will play for the BCS title on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz.
Off the field, things are a bit more complex. While these stories can't hurt Newton's chances of leading Auburn to a national title, they can harm his chances of winning the Heisman Trophy.
Newton is the best college player in the United States. Any suggestion to the contrary is laughable. He is the SEC's most efficient passer with a quarterback rating of 182.8. He has accounted for 35 touchdowns (19 passing, 15 rushing, one receiving). He leads the SEC in rushing with 1,146 yards through 10 games. Last year's SEC rushing leader, Mark Ingram, won the Heisman after running for 1,542 yards and scoring 18 touchdowns in 13 games. Newton's statistics are more comparable to those of 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow, who through 10 games had accounted for 42 touchdowns. The difference? Tebow's 2007 Florida team -- Newton was Tebow's backup that year -- lost three regular-season games and didn't even win the SEC East.
Just as important in the evaluation of Newton's on-field Heisman-worthiness is his value to his team. Take away tailback LaMichael James -- another Heisman candidate with a prior legal scrape -- from Oregon, and the Ducks aren't as explosive, but they might still be undefeated. Take away quarterback Kellen Moore from Boise State, and the Broncos aren't as good, but they're probably still undefeated. Take away Newton from Auburn and the Tigers become another above-average SEC team in a Western Division loaded with above-average-to-excellent teams.
So here is the question Heisman voters -- of which I'm one -- must answer: Though the Heisman ballot only asks voters to elect the "most outstanding college football player," does it imply a character component?
The Heisman Trust's mission statement certainly suggests there is one. "The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity," reads the first sentence of the mission statement.
The ballot itself offers no clues. Here is the only criterion listed: "...the recipient of the award MUST be a bona fide student of an accredited college or university including the United States Academies. The recipients must be in compliance with the bylaws defining an NCAA student athlete."
Newton meets that definition. Though the NCAA is looking into allegations, it has not ruled Newton ineligible. Auburn has known of the allegations for months, but the program is comfortable enough with its own findings to allow Newton to play. And Newton is a bona fide student at Auburn, no matter what happened or didn't happen at Florida.
If the FoxSports.com report is true, Newton didn't do anything different than any other student in that situation. He was never expelled from Florida. He went to a junior college, passed the classes he needed to pass and began looking for a new four-year school. Every semester, thousands of students across the country do the same thing.
In the case of the cheating allegations, Heisman voters will have to choose whom they believe. They can believe one anonymous source, or they can believe ... silence. Because Newton didn't deny the allegations. This was his response: "I'm not going to entertain something that happened three months, six months, but two years ago," Newton told reporters Tuesday. "I'm not going to talk about it, beating a dead horse."
A curious subplot to the Newton drama is the constant search for the source of the alleged conspiracy against Newton. Tuesday, Florida coach Urban Meyer -- already cast by some as Deep Throat for the Mississippi State allegations -- flatly denied that anyone in his program leaked the cheating allegations. "For anyone to think that I or anyone on our staff may have leaked information about private student records to the media doesn't know us very well," Meyer said in a statement. "It's a ridiculous claim and simply not true."
Meyer's denial is believable for this reason: Why would anyone in Florida's athletic department leak information that makes Florida's athletic department look terrible? If the allegations are true, then Florida kept Newton on the team after a cheating incident his freshman year that would have gotten him booted from multiple schools in the FBS.
That doesn't mean someone on Florida's academic faculty or staff didn't leak the information, but the chance this Deep Throat ever makes the big reveal is slim to none. If the allegations are true, the leak is a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that protects student records from being revealed publicly. If the allegations are false, they are a malicious smear of the worst kind. If Newton is innocent, he and his family should root out the culprit and press for prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. If Newton is not, he should let it drop right here and prepare for Saturday's game against Georgia.
Because there is nothing Newton can do to stop the stories. All he can do is keep playing and keep dominating. If he leads the Tigers to a national title, he'll be a hero in the eyes of the Auburn faithful. If the NCAA finds no merit to the Mississippi State allegations, Newton needn't worry about any further repercussions. He can go on to the NFL -- given the amount of drama he's endured, he may want to leave after this season rather than next -- and reap the spoils of his prodigious talents.
What anyone believes about Cam Newton -- absent any hard proof -- has no bearing on his chase for a championship. Perception could affect his Heisman chances. I'm a voter, and I'm not ready to decide what it all means. I'm sure many of my fellow voters feel the same way. To his credit, Newton has handled all this with grace and humor. That might help him when we voters start making tough decisions in early December.
No matter what happens from this point, we all know Cam Newton is the most outstanding college football player in the United States. We just aren't sure if he's the most outstanding person -- or whether that even matters.