Reggie Bush’s returned Heisman is a long overdue reset on an outdated college sports mentality

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Reggie Bush’s returned Heisman is a long overdue reset on an outdated college sports mentality

Wednesday’s news that Reggie Bush is finally getting his 2005 Heisman Trophy back marks the culmination of a long, contentious saga for Bush and USC.

It’s also the final nail in the coffin for a century-plus era that stigmatized any athlete who dared receive anything of value beyond their scholarship.

The famed USC running back’s exile dated to a 2010 NCAA infractions case in which a pair of wannabe agents arranged for Bush’s family to live rent-free in a house in San Diego and a sports marketer feted Bush and his family with cash, plane tickets and hotel stays.

In a statement, Michael Comerford, President of the Heisman Trophy Trust, said in part, “We considered the enormous changes in college athletics over the last several years in deciding that now is the right time to reinstate the Trophy for Reggie.”

It apparently took three years for the Heisman folks to notice that college athletes regularly receive cash, free cars and apartments now that the NCAA’s name, image and likeness restrictions have been lifted.

The transgressions in Bush’s case may seem quaint now, but make no mistake: They were a huge scandal at the time.

Yahoo Sports first broke the details of the Bush saga in 2006. People were outraged. An NCAA investigation ensued, but with all parties going radio silent for four years, the public began to believe USC might skate entirely.

Instead, in June 2010, the Committee on Infractions issued the school (which was also found to have violations in men’s basketball) some of the harshest sanctions on record: a two-year bowl ban, the loss of 30 scholarships and vacated wins that included the Trojans’ 2004 BCS championship victory over Oklahoma.

Over time, the sanctions would be viewed as a case of egregious overreach by the committee. But not in June 2010. If anything, it confirmed the widely held belief by fans of the Trojans’ competitors that Pete Carroll’s dominant program must have been “cheating,” even though the shady figures giving out the money had no connection to USC and were just shamelessly trying to get a piece of Bush’s future NFL earnings.

Once upon a time, in the mid-1990s, Alabama received a bowl ban because one of its players signed an agreement with an agent on a cocktail napkin. Today, every college star in the country has an agent.



Reggie Bush looks back on his college career through the lens of NCAA rules changes

Looking back now, Bush’s “crimes” seem anachronistic and absurd, even more so because of the price he paid long after the fact. The NCAA forced USC to disassociate from him for 10 years; the Heisman kept away his trophy for nearly 15; he was branded a cheater, despite none of those benefits giving him or USC a competitive advantage.

But that’s hardly the way it was viewed in 2010. Why would it be? For pretty much the entirety of college sports history, we held as a near-universal truth there were few worse crimes than athletes getting money.

But the first cracks in that facade began to show not long after the USC case. The ugly 2011 Jerry Sandusky child abuse case at Penn State reset the bar for what constitutes a “scandal.” Ed O’Bannon’s landmark suit against the NCAA over NIL use began winding through the courts. As coaches’ contracts and TV deals kept escalating, it seemed increasingly ridiculous that, for example, Georgia star Todd Gurley got suspended for four games in 2014 for accepting $3,000 to sign autographs, or that UCF kicker Donald De La Haye in 2017 lost his college eligibility for running a monetized YouTube channel.

All the while, Bush himself was no longer villainized by the public. If anything, nostalgia for his many dazzling highlight plays at USC only grew stronger, and a younger generation of players came to idolize him. He returned to the public sphere as an analyst on Fox Sports’ Big Noon Kickoff show and returned to the USC sideline for games. But he was still exiled from the Heisman House.

Until now.

Reggie Bush started as an analyst on Fox Sports’ Big Noon Kickoff in 2019. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

The Heisman folks’ decision naturally opens the door to wonder what other punishments might be retroactively rescinded. There might not be any. For one thing, this was not an NCAA decision. There’s been no indication the organization plans to rescind old rulings due to the recent change in rules. And even if it could, it would be impossible to reverse SMU’s death penalty or Ohio State’s Tattoogate suspensions at this point.

All we can do is retroactively rebrand other ex-athletes who were made out to be pariahs in their day for having the audacity to take money. In most cases, that’s already happened. The Michigan basketball Fab Five’s legacy is largely celebrated regardless of stripped banners. Johnny Manziel, castigated in 2013 for taking money to sign autographs, got a sympathetic Netflix doc.

Mostly, Wednesday’s milestone should be viewed as a reset, not just for Bush, but the broader college football world. Georgia’s Carson Beck getting a Lamborghini is not salacious; it’s a guy reaping the benefits of being one of the best quarterbacks in his multibillion-dollar sport. Caleb Downs bolting Alabama for Ohio State may be a bummer for Crimson Tide fans, but if someone is willing to throw money at him for being the best safety in the country, so be it. Utah’s collective leasing all 85 of its scholarship players a free $61,000 truck may seem extravagant, but coach Kyle Whittingham got a larger bonus than that ($100,000) in 2022 when those players won him a division title.

It took nearly 15 years for Bush to get his Heisman back. That seemed like an eternity. But it took a whole lot longer than that to reach a day where the college world stopped stigmatizing athletes for receiving their monetary value.

  (Photo: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)