Commentary: Hand back Reggie Bush his Heisman, you NCAA scoundrels

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FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2005, file photo, Southern California tail back Reggie Bush walks off the field holding the game ball after the Trojans defeated Fresno State, 50-42, at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Former Southern California star Reggie Bush, who had his Heisman Trophy victory in 2005 vacated for committing NCAA violations, is among the players making their first appearance on the College Football Hall of Fame ballot this year. The National Football Foundation announced on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, the players eligible for election into the Hall of Fame, and 26 of the 77 FBS players will be debuting on the ballot. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian, File)
Reggie Bush, pictured here during his Heisman-winning 2005 season, asked the NCAA and Heisman Trust for his trophy back. No reply. (Associated Press)

This being college sports, we shouldn’t be surprised that a historic day pointing toward a brighter future would be interrupted by reverberations from wrongs of the past.

Thursday was college athlete emancipation day, with Fresno State twin women’s basketball players Haley and Hanna Cavinder and an Ohio State offensive lineman cashing in on their fame within hours of the NCAA’s amateurism rules related to name, image and likeness going up in flames. An ad featuring the Cavinder sisters splashed across a big screen in Times Square. The Buckeyes’ “big ugly,” Dawand Jones, promoted scented candles on Twitter.

Amazing, right?

Then, a little before noon on the West Coast, Reggie Bush stepped back into the spotlight.

“It is my strong belief that I won the Heisman trophy ‘solely’ due to my hard work and dedication on the football field,” Bush wrote in a statement he released on Twitter, “and it is also my firm belief that my records should be reinstated.”

The former USC running back said that he has reached out in the last couple months to the NCAA and the Heisman Trust to discuss the return of his Heisman, a trophy he rightfully won in 2005, when he was the best and most popular player in the country. A trophy stolen from him five years later when it was revealed that he and his family received benefits from an agent during the Trojans’ glory run.

Of course, neither the NCAA nor the Heisman Trust, bastions of an American good ol’ boy network that can’t die fast enough, will make it easy for Bush, even though the Heisman Trust said in a statement Friday that “should the NCAA reinstate Bush’s 2005 status, the Heisman Trust looks forward to welcoming him back to the Heisman family.”

“I never cheated this game,” Bush tweeted separately in his statement. “That was what they wanted you to believe about me.”

Bush was not alone Thursday as an iconic former college athlete who spoke out after being publicly humiliated and scorned for taking some money while generating exponentially more for others.

Like Bush, Chris Webber, the headliner of Michigan’s Fab Five, was banished from his school’s grounds for a decade. He had to watch the Wolverines’ Final Four banners from 1992-93 come down and stay down, even as his Michigan teammate Juwan Howard returned to the program as head coach two years ago.

“Ummmmmmm soooo … whoever has the key please hit me up. I need that key ... you know … the one to the secret room with the Banners,” Webber tweeted.

On a day that should have been a full-on celebration of hard-won progress, it now had to be asked: What recompense is owed to those who, at the altar of the false god of amateurism, endured undue damage to their reputations during the height of their athletic prowess and fame?

Bush will never get back what he lost. And while we shouldn't paint him as a victim — the victims here are all college athletes over the last century — Bush lost hundreds of thousands of dollars that he could have made as the most electric college football player who was starring in Los Angeles at a time when the games had officially crossed over into big business. He lost his connection to a place that he loved, a place that loved him back, just not unconditionally. Tangibly, he lost that bronze statue, too, even though we don’t need him to be able to hold it to know it’s his.

Bush and Webber came into college more than a decade apart but still within a culture, perpetuated by the sports media, that shamed anyone who broke NCAA rules — players and coaches — as morally bereft rogues. What we should have known then, and certainly understand now, is that the NCAA and its predatory system were the true crooks.

Only now is the cartel breaking, and it is happening slowly. It took a momentous intervention from state legislatures, starting with California's, to force this change, and it will take more grit and guile from athlete advocates to keep cracking the facade of schools needing to protect athletes who are old enough to vote from the harm of commercialization.

Bush simply came along at the wrong time. With any major gain in society, there are those who came before who could have benefited retroactively. He’s got plenty of company and should hold onto that perspective.

For every year the NCAA clings to its remaining amateurism rules — the schools will until they are held at gunpoint by courts or legislators to let them go, one by one, like NIL — more athletes are going to be shortchanged.

Eventually, it’s all going to be legal, college athletes will have bargaining power, a proper cut of the TV revenue and the same rights as coaches to get theirs in a free market. But until then, there will be more pain and more shame when someone is caught going further than the still-arbitrary rules allow.

Hopefully, we’ll just see through it better next time.

If we do, there will never be another Reggie Bush. Whether he gets his Heisman back or not, let’s make sure he’s the last of his kind.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.