On Tuesday, current New Orleans Saint and former USC Trojan Reggie Bush announced that he would return his Heisman Trophy. Bush is the first player ever to surrender the award, but the move was telegraphed after so much pressure had been brought to bear on the Heisman Trust in the wake of NCAA violations committed by Bush while he attended USC.
Recently, reports surfaced claiming that the Trust was planning to strip Bush of the trophy, but those was quickly disputed. At the time, the Trust had made no decision on Bush’s fate, and had taken no action against him.
While the Trust pondered how to handle the volatile situation, Bush elected to take matters into his own hands.
Here is a portion of Bush’s statement, released through the Saints organization:
“One of the greatest honors of my life was winning the Heisman Trophy in 2005. For me, it was a dream come true. But I know that the Heisman is not mine alone. Far from it. I know that my victory was made possible by the discipline and hard work of my teammates, the steady guidance of my coaches, the inspiration of the fans, and the unconditional love of my family and friends. And I know that any young man fortunate enough to win the Heisman enters into a family of sorts. Each individual carries the legacy of the award and each one is entrusted with its good name.
It is for these reasons that I have made the difficult decision to forfeit my title as Heisman winner of 2005.”
There are a couple things to like about how this went down. First and foremost, Bush took a drastic step to put this whole plodding affair to rest. If nothing else, the return of the Heisman Trophy just brought us one step closer to never having to hear about the whole mess again. I don’t say this with sarcasm. It’s an issue that needs closure, and that can only happen after all the major decisions have been made. The fate of the Heisman Trophy was dangling out there, waiting to be dealt with. Now it has been.
Second, I appreciate Bush’s attention to detail, even if he was purposefully vague. We can question his sincerity, especially given the fact that it took a situation of this magnitude for him to “apologize”, but nevertheless, he very carefully and thoroughly said all the right things.
“For the rest of my days, I will continue to strive to demonstrate through my actions and words that I was deserving of the confidence placed in me by the Heisman Trophy Trust. I would like to begin in this effort by turning a negative situation into a positive one by working with the Trustees to establish an educational program which will assist student-athletes and their families avoid some of the mistakes that I made. I am determined to view this event as an opportunity to help others and to advance the values and mission of the Heisman Trophy Trust.”
The primary take-away here is the admission of mistakes. There’s no more hiding, no more silence. While it may not be the satisfactory acknowledgement we’ve ever heard, Bush just gave us the ability to move on from his indiscretions. And though it may be a little cheesy considering the timing, it’s nice to see him publicly avow to help make sure that other kids don’t follow the same troubled path.
Still, while this dog-and-pony show meets with my approval in many ways, it fails to erase a core truth and a yet to be resolved problem in the NCAA discipline process.
The core truth is that regardless of his eligibility or what he did off the field, Reggie Bush demonstrated an on-field prowess that earned him the Heisman Trophy. He can give the hardware back, but it doesn’t really change anything. Now the award will be vacated for the 2005 season. On paper. But fans of the game know who won it and why.
Taking improper benefits didn’t help Bush break tackles and find running lanes and get to the endzone. At least, not in any direct or measurable way. He was wrong for what he did, he broke the rules and deserved every bit of punishment he received, but his talent as an athlete remains unimpeached.
And the problem that the NCAA has yet to fully address is the consequences that coaches face. The most interesting line in ESPN’s article about Bush’s decision was this: After the 2009 season, coach Pete Carroll left to take over the Seattle Seahawks.
Why did that catch my attention?
As a result of Bush’s improprieties and issues with other USC athletes, the NCAA cited the university for a lack of institutional control. The resulting penalties included the loss of 30 football scholarships over three years, the vacating of 14 football victories, and a 2-year ban on bowl eligibility.
The resulting penalties for Bush have been a grisly trial in the court of public opinion that ultimately forced his hand as he parted with what surely must be one of his most cherished achievements.
The resulting penalties for the presiding coach? A $30 million dollar deal with an NFL team.
As I’ve watched NCAA investigations unfold over the years, I’ve noticed that, in general, the players and the schools pay heavy prices for their mistakes while the coaches, who supposedly have the responsibility of managing the team and the program in general, simply keep on keeping on. Carroll is hardly the only example. Look at John Calipari, men’s basketball coach. He’s left a swath of violations at multiple schools and yet never faces any repercussions. After dropping a steaming pile in Memphis, he strolled off to Lexington while the Tigers’ program suffered the fallout.
Current Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez has been accused of “major violations” at both Michigan and his former workplace, West Virginia. While some fans might take issue with how major a given violation actually is, it should disturb anyone who follows the sport to see Rodriguez distance himself from blame even as the schools are embroiled in the disciplinary process.
Why is it that the NCAA sees fit to punish the kids, punish the universities, but let coaches slip away with barely a slap on the wrist?
Incoming NCAA President Mark Emmert has issued a strongly-worded statement talking about how he wants to to get tough on agents and crack down harder on rule-breakers, but nowhere does he specifically call out coaches for their roles in such fiascos.
To be clear, I like Pete Carroll. He seems like a good guy. I’m not saying that he had a hand in Bush’s misbehavior, or that he was even aware of the problem. But how can a punishment for “lack of institutional control” not impact the guy who is supposed to be doing the controlling on behalf of the institution?
As Bush forks over his award, the one thing that will gall me the most is that the man who was supposed to be offering players the most guidance walked away with barely a mark on his record.
In its efforts to clean up the game, the NCAA needs to change the way it handles this aspect of discipline. If coaches faced harsher and more direct consequences, perhaps they’d be a little more motivated to police their own programs.