With Southern Cal’s return to prominence as a bowl contender and producer of Heisman winners, it’s impossible not to recall that 2005 season when Bush led the Trojans to a national championship with such sudden bursting speed and jagged changes of direction that his runs felt like firebolts. Remember how he could shimmy through the smallest opening, turn a shoulder and hip sideways and then, with one foot jab, explode up the field in an act of pure combustion? He might have been the most exciting collegiate runner of the modern era, and every yard was an act of headlong devotion.
“I never cheated this game,” Bush tweeted last summer when he launched a campaign to recover his trophy from the NCAA and the Heisman Trust. “That was what they wanted you to believe about me.”
As sneaker executive Sonny Vaccaro once remarked of the NCAA’s capsized ethics, “The bottom of this is the top.” Bush was stripped of his Heisman in 2010 for accepting what the NCAA termed “impermissible benefits.” He took a free Impala and a rental house for his parents from a couple of start-up marketers who cooperated with Bush’s stepfather, LaMar Griffin, to seek memorabilia deals and other opportunities on his behalf. When the arrangement was discovered, Bush was disgraced. He is the only Heisman winner ever to have his trophy seized.
But what was truly impermissible was the rule itself forbidding Bush to exercise his God-given commercial rights. As Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote in a separate opinion as part of last year’s unanimous 9-0 Alston ruling, “The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.” Writing for the court, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch characterized the NCAA’s enforced amateurism as a scheme of “horizontal price fixing.”
NCAA bureaucrats, the Heisman Trust and bowl executives used Bush’s image and his gloriously headlong highlight reels to score millions. They pocketed fortunes in TV revenue, endorsements and marketing value. None of it belonged to them.
“The NCAA is not above the law,” Kavanaugh wrote.
Bush and his attorney Alex Spiro have repeatedly reached out to the NCAA seeking the just return of his trophy and reinstatement of his records. They were initially met with a wall of resistance. The Heisman has said it can do nothing without the NCAA. And the NCAA initially refused to revisit the case, with a “those were the rules at the time” response. “The rules that govern fair play are voted on, agreed to and expected to be upheld by all NCAA member schools,” a statement said.
This kind of sophistry is exactly what led to the inexorable collapse of the NCAA’s authority. Alexander Welsh, author of the book “What is Honor?” has observed that concepts such as fair play and honor depend on respect, “which always looks two ways.” The NCAA apparatchiks look only one way — to their pockets. They were not out to protect “fair play.” They were out to protect an illegal financial conspiracy, what Kavanaugh termed “a massive money-raising enterprise [built] on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated.” They sold kids’ commercial rights without consent for more than $1 billion per year. The tut-tut argument to Bush that “the rules were the rules” is like arguing a hostage shouldn’t have tried to free himself from a peonage debt servitude. It’s like telling a blackmail victim he was bound to obey the mafia’s rules.
Spiro has continued to press the case, arguing strongly that the only honorable actor in this sad situation was Bush. Why, Spiro wondered, would the NCAA want to “double down on its decade-plus draconian penalty of a teenage kid … You have to wonder if profiting from kids for this long has clouded the NCAA’s judgment as to why we have student athletics in the first place.”
He urged the organization to act generously, for the sake of fairness and think about its ultimate reputation: is it a source of true fairness for competitors, or a stubborn, closefisted organization that takes pleasure in punishment and can’t admit it was wrong? “Nobody sits in a rocking chair thinking about all the kids they penalized,” Spiro says. “They have a chance to do a great thing here, the right thing.”
The arguments may have worked. Recently, the NCAA agreed to send Bush and Spiros a case “resolution” letter which, while it doesn’t totally exonerate Bush, at least provides him a new opening. The letter declares a “no finding” on whether Bush was individually responsible for the infractions it found Southern Cal guilty of. This will allow Spiro and Bush to appeal to the Heisman Trust, with the NCAA’s tepid backing, that nobody ever paid Bush a dime to play college football. He competed cleanly, ran for the love of running. Whatever he received was strictly ancillary. “It is my strong belief that I won the Heisman trophy ‘solely’ due to my hard work and dedication on the football field and it is also my firm belief that my records should be reinstated,” Bush once wrote.
Nothing is guaranteed, but Bush and his attorney are hopeful that the NCAA has finally turned right-side up. Bush will never recoup all that the NCAA purloined from him in commercial rights. But at least he can recover his proper status in the Heisman annals and the trophy that he earned. Give it back to him.
New information and comments from Reggie Bush’s attorney Alex Spirro have been added to this column.