Holy Heisman, the Newton saga

If you're a college football fan, you're familiar with Cam Newton: He's the star Auburn quarterback who -- for now-- leads most Heisman polls. This afternoon, his unbeaten, second-ranked Tigers face the No. 11 Alabama Crimson Tide in an Iron Bowl with national title ramifications.

You also know, though, that Newton has been making headlines for more than his on-field prowess. And not in a positive way. As ESPN.com's excellent college football columnist Ivan Maisel noted:

Newton may be the best player in the country, but in the last month Newton and his father have had their reputations sullied by accusations that Cecil Newton shopped his son's talent for money. That's the kind of snack on which opposing fans feast.

Now you may be wondering -- especially if you haven't followed the news concerning the NCAA investigation -- what in the world this has to do with religion. Oh, we need a GetReligion angle? Even on the day after Thanksgiving? Tough crowd.

But since you asked: The quarterback's father is the pastor of a small Pentecostal church. Over the past few weeks, the church has figured into news reports on allegations that Cecil Newton sought $180,000 for his son to play football with Mississippi State. Those allegations raise the issue of whether the father received any financial incentive for his son to sign with Auburn, which would be a major violation of NCAA rules.

ESPN.com reported earlier this month:

Cecil Newton said the family received a letter from the NCAA "about a month ago" asking for financial statements. He said he submitted bank statements and records for the church where he is pastor, Holy Zion Center of Deliverance in Newnan, Ga., along with other records.

The church has been in the news in Coweta County, Ga., often in the past year. According to stories in The Times-Herald newspaper, Cecil Newton's church was in danger of being demolished by order of the Newnan City Council in 2009 for failing to meet the city's building code. One story said Cecil Newton told the council last September the building would be brought to code "inside of six months." After numerous delays, extensions and compromises from the council, renovation work began last spring and The Times-Herald reported last week that the church is in compliance with Newnan's building requirements.

"If you've ever seen our church, you'd know we don't have any money," said Cam Newton's mother, Jackie. "We have nothing."

Questions about the church prompted an NBC Sports blogger -- perhaps in need of GetReligion remedial training -- to remark a few days later:

Aside from the fact that the church name sounds like a cult, there would seem to be nothing spectacular about Cecil's establishment.

The blogger's comment gave me the distinct impression that he's never read that headline-grabbing Pew Forum study from a few years ago on the rising tide of Pentecostalism. (That was an attempt at humor, by the way.) Seriously, though, the remark sent me on a Google search for any mainstream media coverage of the church. I was curious about the church and wanted to know more about its role in this. At the time -- a couple of weeks ago -- I couldn't find anything beyond bare-bones mentions.

So I was pleased this week when the Old Gray Lady herself ran a piece with this headline:

Church Has Role In Newton Inquiry

From The New York Times' story:

Newton, 50, is the bishop overseeing five small Pentecostal churches in Georgia, including the church here, where he is also pastor, and another in Savannah, which is led by his sister-in-law, Gail Norwood.

"He's a very caring, very loving bishop," Norwood said Sunday after a weekly service at her church, Holy Zion Holiness, attended by a dozen adults and a handful of children. "Bishop Newton and my sister, Jackie, have all our support."

Newton took over as bishop of the churches about 10 years ago, after the death of Talmadge Wilder, who was the founder of their small denomination and Newton's father-in-law. On Sunday, Norwood asked the congregation to pray for Cecil Newton and his family. After the service, she said the controversy had not disrupted the congregation. "We are at peace," she said.

For relevant details, that's a start. Unfortunately, that's as deep as the story goes concerning Newton's church and denomination (does it have a name?). The reference to an interview after a weekly service makes it appear that the reporter was present, but no observations or scenes from the service are included. Overall, this is just an extremely vague report that provides no real insight into what Newton or the churches he oversees believe.

Mainly, the story runs down what is known so far about the NCAA investigation, with bits and pieces concerning the church's dealings with the city and the cost of its repairs sprinkled in. That information is important, but it's not enough.

Want to know what the church itself is like? Readers must settle for this kind of detail:

Blandburg called the congregation close-knit. "To me, it feels like more of a family than any church that I've ever been to," she said.

Oh, there's also this:

Cecil Newton Sr. has proved to be a good role model for his children and others in the congregation, Blandburg said. "The kids that come from here are doing well."

A very loving bishop. A close-knit church family. A good role model.

I give the Times credit for recognizing a key angle -- the church -- in the Newton saga. I just wish the paper had dug a whole lot deeper. This story produced a few positive yards, but it fell short of the end zone. Way short.

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