Wednesday, September 15, 2010

One In the Hand Is Worth None in the Bush

On Tuesday, current New Orleans Saints running back and former University of Southern California standout Reggie Bush became the first player in the 75 year history of the Heisman Trophy to forfeit the award. The 2005 Heisman trophy winner has been under pressure to relinquish the award after USC was fined, placed on probation, and banned from playing in bowl games after an NCAA investigation determined that Reggie Bush received improper benefits during his time at the university. New USC athletic director, and former Heisman Trophy winner, Pat Haden relinquished the university's copy of Bush's Heisman Trophy several weeks ago in a show of support for the NCAA's decision. By forfeiting his 2005 Heisman Trophy, Bush preempted a possible vote by the Heisman Trophy Trust to strip him of the award.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Bush cited his former teammates, coaches, and family as the reason he chose to relinquish the award. "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."

Reggie Bush received the second highest number of total votes (2,541) in history for a Heisman Trophy winner. Fellow USC great O.J. Simpson received the highest number of votes (2,853) in the history of the award. Reggie Bush rushed for 1,740 yards and 17 touchdowns, had 478 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns, and had 672 total return yards and a touchdown in his remarkable 2005 season. In his electrifying two year career at USC, Bush finished with 2,648 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns to go along with 987 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns and 115 total returns for 1,585 yards and 3total touchdowns.

Bush's 2004 season ended with a victory in the 2005 BCS championship game against Oklahoma while his Heisman Trophy winning season of 2005 was punctuated by a loss to Texas in the 2006 BCS title game. In June of this year, the NCAA penalized USC with a 2-year bowl game ban, four years probation, the loss of 30 football scholarships over 3 years, and the vacating of 14 victories in which Reggie Bush took part from December 2004 through the 2005 season, including the 2005 BCS Championship after a 4-year NCAA investigation found that USC lacked "institutional control" by allowing Bush and former USC standout basketball player O.J. Mayo, now with the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, to receive numerous improper benefits during their respective tenures.

In their investigation, the NCAA said that Bush, referred to as a "former football student-athlete" in the report, received lavish gifts from two fledgling sports marketers hoping to sign him. The men paid for everything from hotel stays and a rent-free home where Bush’s family apparently lived to a limousine and a new suit when he accepted his Heisman Trophy in New York in December 2005. The NCAA determined that Bush was ineligible beginning at least by December 2004, which initially opened discussions about possibly revoking Bush's Heisman Trophy.

The Heisman Memorial Trophy Award, first awarded in 1935, is named after former Brown University and Georgia Tech player and coach John Heisman and is given annually by the Heisman Trophy Trust to the "most outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity". The last part of this statement, "the pursuit of excellence with integrity", is what ultimately damned Bush's chances of hanging on to the prestigious award. One of the few guidelines given to Heisman Trophy voters is that a player must be in compliance with NCAA rules to be eligible for the award.

Many people are outraged that Bush, by all accounts an upstanding citizen off the field, has been pressured into giving back his award when former USC star running back and 1968 Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson is allowed to keep his honor. Simpson, who is widely believed to have been complicit in the murders of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, is currently serving a 33 year sentence with the possibility of parole in 9 years for his actions in a 2007 attempted armed robbery, assault, and kidnapping at the Palace Station Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas where he was allegedly attempting to recover stolen sports memorabilia. Much to the chagrin of O.J. Simpson haters, he did not violate any NCAA rules or federal laws during his time at USC. ironically, Simpson's 1968 award was sold in February 1999 for $230,000 as a part of the settlement of the civil trial in the O.J. Simpson murder case.

Reggie Bush has swallowed his pride by returning the trophy and he will be vilified in the media for time immemorial as the poster child for spoiled star athletes receiving special favors over pedestrian athletes and the general student body. Granted, he will no longer be introduced as "Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, a title that its recipients cherish. However, Heisman Trophy or not, he will be just fine. In 2006, Bush signed a 6-year, $52.5 million contract, which included $26.31 million in guaranteed money. Money may not buy happiness but, if the award means as much to him as he claimed in his statement, Bush could have replica Heisman Trophies embroidered on every square inch of his house.

The real losers are the 30+ athletes that will either have to foot their own bill as they continue their athletic careers at USC or attend another school when going to USC has been a life-long goal. The real losers are the current juniors and seniors on the USC football team that will not have the opportunity to experience post-season play at the culmination of their 4+ years of hard work and sacrifice. Matt Barkeley, USC's sophomore quarterback, attempted to keep things in perspective when he discussed the sanctions levied against the school. “It does stink to possibly not play in a bowl game...but, at the same time, I came here to get a degree from one of the best universities in the country and to win football games. If we play 13 instead of 14, then we’re going to try to win all 13 of those.” It doesn't just stink Matt, it wreaks.

The folks that are sitting pretty in the midst of this scandal are Athletic Director Pat Haden and the rest of the USC brass. You may be asking yourself, how could the trustees at USC possibly be in a good position after being placed on 4-years probation, forfeiting 14 victories including the 2005 National Championship, losing 30 scholarships over 3 years, and forfeiting their copy of Bush's tainted trophy? The answer is the fact that no one in a position of authority and influence has asked USC to fork over the estimated $42-53 million that the university reportedly earned during Bush's stint at the school. Make no mistake about it, it's all about the money. If it wasn't, football programs wouldn't adamantly oppose replacing the financially lucrative Bowl Championship Series (with it's Christmas and New Year's Day games and the associated advertising dollars) with a playoff system that many experts believe would solve college football's problem with computerized rankings and crowning a unanimous national champion. If it wasn't all about money, colleges wouldn't be allowed to reap large profits on the backs of unpaid employees (who are bound to their programs for a minimum of 3 years) and, as soon as an athlete attempts to buck the system or is discovered to have received money and benefits outside of his/her scholarship and measly stipend, can wash their hands of the student-athlete and exile them to the amateur sports version of Elba. Former Ohio State running back and current ex-con Maurice Clarett and, more recently, former Oklahoma State and current Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant both come to mind. If it wasn't all about money, the top collegiate football coaches wouldn't accept multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts, recruit top players to their respective colleges and universities dangling enticing treats such as guaranteed playing time, cohesive coaching staffs, and the elusive opportunity to play at the next level in the recruit's face only to leave after a year or two to pursue a higher paying gig at a bigger college or in the professional ranks AT NO PENALTY, leaving the kids that they promised the world and more to to fend for themselves. Nick Saban and Lane Kiffen anyone?! When a collegiate player breaks his/her scholarship and transfers to another school, they lose a year of eligibility. Tell me again how football programs like USC are the victims here?

I'm not in any way condoning the actions of Reggie Bush as an amateur athlete at USC. He took improper benefits with the full knowledge that, should he get caught, the ramifications could be embarassing and hurtful to more people than just himself. By the letter of the law, Bush was ineligible to play college football at the time that he was awarded the Heisman Trophy and, thus, was ineligible to receive that award. However, as a poor kid from Compton or even as a middle class kid from San Diego like Reggie, how could you not grow tired of waiting for your piece of the pie when you see your coaches pulling in six figure salaries, new academic buildings going up all over campus, and the athletic director and other university brass enjoying swanky dinners with boosters due in large measure to your blood, sweat, and tears. As the NCAA's own promotional commercial alludes to, most collegiate student-athletes "go pro" in something other than sports after their time on campus has passed. For those who are talented and fortunate enough to make it to the National Football League, they can expect to have an average career of 3.5 years and make significantly less than $1 million dollars in that period. A career ending injury is just one snap away so, for the athlete, time is of the essence to take full advantage of a fast closing career window.

We live in a day and age where it is popular to decry rich athletes as spoiled brats who are out of touch with the daily plight of the rest of the citizenry. With a few exceptions, they are. However, we are not so quick to condemn the institutions that create these figures and, when it is convenient, disposes of them like spoiled food. Reggie Bush is no one's victim but the men who are used by college and university football programs to line their pockets and then kicked to the curb without having attained Bush's fame, fortune and, in most cases, education are. Such actions are and should be viewed as reprehensible in our society regardless of your relationship to sports.

The Heisman Trophy is the most prestigious award in college football and one of the most esteemed awards in all of sports. Candidates and winners of the Heisman Trophy are held to the highest standards of excellence on the field, in the classroom, and in the community. However, "the pursuit of excellence with integrity" isn't a standard that only Heisman hopefuls should be held to, but a standard that the institutions that we entrust our young minds and bodies to should unflinchingly abide by as well.

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