Reggie Bush and the Heisman Trophy: The Tip of a Very Dirty Iceberg

Brian TuohyCorrespondent ISeptember 21, 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

When Reggie Bush decided to return his Heisman Trophy, he said doing so wasn't an admission of guilt.

He can say whatever he wants; he's not under oath.

But it is very hard to believe that the NCAA's investigation into the matter didn't reveal the truth behind Reggie Bush and his family receiving "illegal" gifts from agents.

Just days after Bush put a hole in his trophy case, Charles Barkley spoke out on the Dan Patrick Radio Show and said he had also accepted gifts from agents when playing at Auburn. Barkley said these "gifts" amounted to "chump change," yet if it was $10 or $10,000 (Barkley never said), it was still against NCAA rules.

Perhaps Bush is correct in thinking that he is getting a raw deal in having to vacate the honor of being the Heisman Trophy winner. It is quite likely that every major high school recruit and NFL or NBA-bound athlete has broken NCAA rules and gotten away scot-free.

Avoiding the debate of whether college athletes should be paid for playing basketball or football, the fact is these sports are riddled with illegal recruiting practices.

The history of NCAA recruiting boils down to how colleges can best entice high school athletes to attend and play for their respective institution. Payoffs and gifts have always been a part of this process, and this does not mean full-ride scholarships.

The NCAA instituted rules for recruiting practices originally in 1948, as too many boosters were outright giving athletes money to attend their alma maters. Called the "Sanity Code," the first violations of this occurred immediately.

In 1950, seven colleges, quickly labeled the "Seven Sinners," faced expulsion from the NCAA for admitting to breaking the NCAA's new recruiting rules. While the majority of the vote was in favor of banning these schools from the NCAA, the vote did not reach a two-thirds majority needed for expulsion. 

No college has ever faced potential expulsion from the NCAA for recruiting violations since.

Because of this lack of threat, the practice never ceased. Sought after high school athletes were often given new cars, their family members were given jobs, and outright cash payoffs were made to land these prospects. These "gifts" were often made by boosters who worked in cahoots with athletic directors or coaches.

These practices created certain college dynasties in both football and basketball, with many highly respected coaches intimately involved in the process. High school athletes didn't necessarily choose a college program due to its prestige but rather chose it because there was a payday attached to the choice.

Such behavior occurs today in every major college athletic program.

Why doesn't the NCAA do more to stop it? It can't.

The investigative arm of the NCAA doesn't have either the manpower or the investigative power to handle the number of schools and athletes scattered across the country. 

Nor does the NCAA possess the sort of power law enforcement does to get suspect boosters, coaches, or athletes to talk. 

Their hands are basically tied, unable to conduct searches, phone taps, or have athletes wear "wires" to help in these investigations. Without those powers, many investigations are going to go nowhere.

And every college program knows this.

This is why every program is willing to risk the sanctions the likes of USC is now under because the holes in the NCAA's net are so large, few fish are ever caught. And by the time they are hauled in, the damage is long done—and the profits attached to those violations are tucked away in the bank.

This same scenario surrounding the recruitment of high school athletes by colleges can be made for agents recruiting the top draft picks well before draft day arrives. Again, there are few investigators possessing limited powers to track and cover every major college athlete who could potentially be making illegal deals with agents prior to their eligibility being up.

If a player is suspected of making such a deal, is he likely to confess to it? Since the NCAA is not the FBI, there's no reason to do so. Unless the NCAA has a player dead to rights, a confession will never come.

So agents, athletes, and their families are free to wheel and deal to their hearts' content.

Translation: Bush is far from being the only one guilty of this crime. Punishing him is like sending one person to jail for failing to return a library book before its due date. It's simply how the recruiting game is played.

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