By Andy Staples
December 15, 2010

Mississippi State basketball player Renardo Sidney, who has a slightly different perspective on matters of NCAA crime and punishment, offered his appraisal of the Cam Newton saga on Tuesday night.

"He was blessed," Sidney told the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.

As Sidney knows all too well, Newton didn't miss any games even though NCAA investigators found evidence that Newton's father, Cecil, tried to sell his son to Mississippi State for $180,000 late last year. On Wednesday Sidney suited up for the Bulldogs for the first time, notching 10 points and six rebounds in a 101-76 win over Belhaven in an exhibition game scheduled so Sidney could get maximum playing time. Sidney entered school last year, but the NCAA ruled he had received extra benefits and deceived NCAA investigators and ordered Sidney to sit out the entire 2009-10 season and 30 percent of this season. The cases may not sound similar, but read on to find out why they are.

This examination of the two cases isn't intended to bash the NCAA student-athlete eligibility committee's decision on Newton's case. If you've read this space, you know I believe the committee did the best it could with the facts it had. You should also know that the decision opened a gaping loophole that should infuriate people such as Sidney, who got hammered because his family also appeared to have its hand out. More than anything, this is a plea to the NCAA to rework its bylaws to provide consistent treatment to athletes regardless of their sport.

It's time to close that loophole, which would allow any athlete to blame malfeasance on a third-party and get off scot-free. NCAA president Mark Emmert said as much in a meeting with reporters in Indianapolis on Tuesday, but he also said fixing the problem won't be easy. "Part of it is it's a very difficult, knotty question," Emmert told USA Today. "It begs the question: Should I be responsible for the actions of my father ... if there's no evidence that you did, if there's no evidence that the institution you wound up at knew or was involved in any of this?"

SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who gets blamed for engineering the Newton ruling but has received neither blame nor credit for the Sidney ruling, believes the loophole must be closed as quickly as possible. "I don't think we should wait for the convention," Slive told at the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 4. "I think we ought to deal with it right now. I think we ought to get it to the NCAA Board of Directors right now and make whatever changes we need to make to make the rules more specific."

The solution might be less complex than Emmert believes. By making it illegal for anyone associated with an athlete to solicit benefits on behalf of that athlete, it would send a message to the parents, travel-ball coaches and "mentors" out there hoping to cash in on a player. If you try, the player will lose his eligibility, and your gravy train will get derailed.

On the surface, the Sidney and Newton cases don't seem all that similar, but Sidney's crimes are a bit misleading. His family was ordered to repay $11,800 in extra benefits. "These funds would not have been available were it not for the student-athlete's athletic skills and reputation," according to an NCAA release dated March 5. "Preferential treatment in this case also included hotel accommodations and other travel expenses, as well as free athletic gear and training." In other words, Sidney was covered because he was a 6-foot-10 post player with uncommonly soft touch on his three-point shot.

If the NCAA held every college basketball player to that standard, most of the programs in the Top 25 couldn't field teams. Elite youth basketball players -- many of whom have little or no financial support from their parents -- don't magically appear at tournaments in Orlando, Las Vegas, North Augusta, S.C., and other exotic locales. Someone pays for their travel. They don't all stock up on shoes and gear at Foot Locker. Apparel companies provide that stuff. Why do they do it? Because the kids are good at basketball; their skills and reputation, to use the NCAA's parlance, make them worthwhile gambles. If the NCAA sat down all the players who had received $11,800 in travel costs and gear during their elite travel-team careers, most BCS-conference programs would have to play walk-ons recruited from the campus rec center.

Sidney also got punished because investigators believe he misled them about a trip to Los Angeles during high school. If he lied, he deserved to be punished. But did he deserve to miss a season and a third?

The real reason the NCAA hammered Sidney -- and the reason schools such as UCLA and USC ultimately wouldn't touch him with a 10-foot pole -- was that no one could figure out how Sidney's family got the money to live in some fairly expensive rental homes in Los Angeles after moving from Mississippi. That Sidney's father worked for Reebok further muddied the waters. An exhaustive investigation by the Los Angeles Times in 2009 found no smoking gun, but it did reveal that Sidney's mother paid rent in excess of $4,000 a month on one home valued at $1.2 million.

The NCAA also could not find evidence of extra benefits beyond the $11,800. That accusation could be attached to any elite player whose father ran his travel team -- as Sidney's father did. At the end of the day, Sidney was punished severely because the circumstances surrounding him stunk to high heaven.

But so, too, did the circumstances surrounding Cam Newton. If Cecil Newton offered to sell his son to Mississippi State and allowed other schools to compete for free, then he probably is the first parent to offer such a deal. No matter. The NCAA could find no proof that Cam Newton knew of the scheme, so he was allowed to play -- which probably was the correct decision based upon the evidence relative to the existing bylaws.

Sidney family attorney Donald Jackson probably wishes he'd used the same willful blindness defense Auburn used. What is willful blindness? It's the defense a smuggler might use when he gets pulled over with a trunk full of contraband. He didn't ask what was in the trunk. He only drove the car. Willful blindness rarely works in a court of law, but it worked on the NCAA, mainly because there is no specific bylaw preventing a third party from soliciting benefits on behalf of a player. Sidney could have entered his interviews with NCAA investigators with a consistent story: "I had no idea what my parents were doing."

Had Sidney used that defense, would he have played last year? That's tough to say, because NCAA committees also deviate from the court system in that they don't always consult relevant precedents when rendering their decisions. In turn, it appears to the public that they're simply making everything up as they go along.

Believe it or not, the NCAA is not some cabal of five or six shadowy figures sitting in Indianapolis trying to conceive of ever more devious schemes to get rich off the backs of 20-year-old athletes. It truly is an organization run by its members, and there are hundreds of members. Enacting what the NCAA considers a "division dominant rule" only in Division I requires representatives of 225 schools coming to an agreement. That's why the bylaws are so convoluted, and it's why making a meaningful change is about as easy as turning an aircraft carrier while simultaneously herding cats.

The result is a wildly inconsistent penalty system. Sidney's family appeared to be soliciting benefits, and he missed a season and a third. Newton's father appeared to be soliciting benefits, and he missed zero games.

"I'm not for sure what the situation was but [Newton] came out on top," Sidney told the Clarion-Ledger, "and I just thought it wasn't fair what they did to me but, hey, you've got to move on and live life."

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