Reggie Bush surrendered his 2005 Heisman Trophy this week, returning it to the Trust that bestowed it to be stowed away forever.
Already USC’s replica Heisman had been cloaked and carted off from Heritage Hall. Commemorative Bush jerseys, previously on display there and at the Los Angeles Coliseum, have been furled and removed from view. The redecorating began after the NCAA’s amateur police determined that Bush committed commerce while on full athletic scholarship. Southern Cal is shamed by it.
All the iconography to the great Trojan tailback had to be taken down over “extra benefits” totaling an estimated $300,000. That kind of money has no place in college athletics.
Yahoo! Sports first detailed Bush’s alleged misdeeds in 2006. The list included rent-free living for his parents, money for a car, a Vegas hotel stay — even suits for his stepfather and brother, and a makeover for his mother, for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. It was earnest money from an aspiring agent mortgaged against Bush’s pro future. None of it made him stronger or faster or, frankly, much richer(*). It did, however, make him retroactively radioactive, requiring swift cleanup to limit the fallout.
(*) I know, I know. Rules were violated and punishments were necessary. Fair enough. Reggie Bush may not be a victim in this, but his case symbolizes the system’s inherent insanity.
The Heisman Trust requires little of its winners beyond eligibility, which explains why certain notorious former winners still have their stiff-arm statue. Banishing Bush alone from USC history still seems gratuitous. After all, 1965 Heisman winner Mike Garrett’s memorabilia remains among the flaunted, and his tenure as athletic director included these major football (and men’s basketball) violations. I mean, while they’re disassociating themselves from the responsible parties . . .
Bush’s electric career and subsequent estrangement reflect the tension between right and wrong in college sports. Enough four- and five-figure allegations added up to a six-figure red flag. The NCAA’s amateur sleuths sprung into action to investigate whether Bush received a fraction of his market value in “extra benefits.”
Meanwhile, back at USC, Bush committed an equally infamous infraction on the field: the Bush Push (description withheld for taste and decency—Ed.) The violation not only went unpunished, it was almost universally accepted, even respected. Losing coach Charlie Weis said, “Is that illegal? Yes, it’s illegal. Would I do the same thing? Absolutely. So I don’t want to be a hypocrite and say, well, they were cheating, because is it illegal? Yes, it’s illegal, OK, but I’d do the same thing.” Weis was hardly alone in that forgiving sentiment.
To sum up: It’s fine to break a rule that the other guy would break too, even if it’s an overt violation that directly alters the outcome of a game. Other rules have less moral flexibility, like amateurism, an outdated concept that remains the NCAA’s shining ideal.
It’s needless hand-wringing. Why not allow reputable agents to represent college athletes? Broker endorsement deals for stars like Bush? Open the economic spigot to the biggest source of the cash flow? Stop the pretense?
The allegations against Bush really indict amateurism itself, an absurd restraint on players amid multimillion deals and golden parachutes for coaches and administrators. His Heisman Trophy might now be unwon, but Bush’s talent and effort was worth whatever “extra benefits” he received and more. Anyone who paid to watch him play knows all those electrifying yards can never be unrun.
Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.