Dear NCAA: Just Once Make a University Pay by Check, and Start With USC

Matthew KiesslingContributor ISeptember 15, 2010

NEW YORK - DECEMBER 10:  Running back Reggie Bush #5 of the USC Trojans poses with the 2005 Heisman trophy after winning the award at the 71st Annual Heisman Ceremony on December 10, 2005 in New York City.  (Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Reggie Bush released a statement saying that he will hand over his 2005 Heisman Trophy in the face of mounting pressure.  Earlier this year, Bush was ruled ineligible for his acceptance of gifts and cash from a sports marketing firm during his time at the university, and in the wake of mounting evidence, the NCAA handed down sanctions after concluding its own investigation. 

On the same day that Bush released his statement, the Heisman Trust had been scheduled to meet.  Though it was unclear whether Bush’s award was on the agenda, the group had been discussing next steps regarding the matter, specifically in light of the revelation that Bush had been ineligible during his Heisman Trophy winning season. 

Though the sanctions have already been handed down, USC had ensured that it avoided further controversy by sending its copy of Bush’s Heisman back, and removing references to Bush’s records and accomplishments from both the record book and the campus itself.  Left to the incoming players and the program are the reduced scholarships and stripped bowl eligibility.  In essence punishing student athletes and a program whose head coach, offending athletes, and more importantly, administration, are long gone.

So here’s an idea: Make USC write a check!

It would seem logical that USC’s new president C.L. “Max” Nikias and athletic director Pat Haden can foster all the goodwill they would need to reduce the current sanctions and make the USC program whole in the eyes of the NCAA, by simply writing a check to cover all of the profits that the program and the university garnered by looking the other way during the Reggie Bush era.  By most accounts the number has to be upwards of fifty million dollars, and includes BCS bowl money, jersey sales, TV money from an era in which they were a perennial national title contender, ticket sales, as well as memorabilia and promotional items, including his E. A. Sports NCAA 2007 video game cover, of which millions of copies were sold.  Because USC went on to recruit additional players and sign additional TV contracts based largely off their success and national acclaim during the Reggie Bush era, it’s impossible to truly value what the star’s exposure meant to the university.

But let’s just pick a number.  Let’s go ahead and say it is that $50 million.

Now it would be easy to go off on a tangent about exploitation and paying student athletes being the answer, but that’s a conversation for another day. 

For a school like USC, football, and specifically a team with headliners like Bush and his cast, the program is only as profitable as its next big star.  So as Bush was making ESPN highlight reels with ankle breaking touchdown runs, racking up awards almost as fast as yards, and leading USC into national championship contention, the school received the exposure that it was after.  And in today’s BCS system, compliance takes a back seat to exposure every time, because with exposure comes the money.

To think that USC did not know what was going on is utterly ridiculous.  To assume that they did not want to know is painfully more accurate and obvious.  Had the NCAA not come calling the university would have breathed a sigh of relief and gone about its business.  There would not have been an internal investigation, and Reggie Bush’s Heisman would still be sitting in his trophy case, not to mention the one on the USC campus.

To be sure, Reggie Bush was not a victim.  He knew the rules.  But it’s difficult to believe he’s the first Heisman Trophy winner to wind up with a few extra bucks in his pocket.  And unfortunately for college football, Bush and the young men who now suit up for USC are the only ones who will actually pay a price.  USC’s program will keep on chugging along, and once the sanctions have been lifted they will pick up right where they left off.  Or, more accurately, once they realize it is in fact Head Coach Lane Kiffin’s complete ineptitude and not the sanctions holding them back, they’ll fire him and then pick up right where they left off.  After all, this is USC.

If USC is truly sorry, and not just engaging in a charade to get the NCAA off its back, it should return the money from the Reggie Bush era.  But it is unlikely to do so voluntarily, and so the NCAA should demand it.  In fact, that’s the only way any of this will ever stop.  Forget the reduced scholarships.  Forget the bowl eligibility.  Let’s cut straight to the chase.  If the NCAA ever wants to put an end to college athletes taking gifts, getting involved with agents, or receiving payment,  they need to tally up the proceeds of a violating athlete’s career, prove anyone from equipment manager on up had knowledge of the improprieties, and then slap the institution with a fine of approximately the same size.  At which point the NCAA should turn around and devote all of that money to education and enforcement, in the hopes that it can avoid tarnishing the reputation of college football any further and we can all stop listening to the hypocritical broken record that seems to play on and on without end.

Forget the sanctions, make USC write a check.