Give Reggie Bush His Heisman Back

The NCAA can never fully atone for the theft of college athletes’ labor. But it should try.

Reggie Bush
Jonathan Bachman / Getty

About the author: Jemele Hill is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

College sports changed forever this week. Giving in to intense pressure from state lawmakers, the NCAA freed student athletes to profit off of their own name, image, and likeness for the first time. The next step in the NCAA’s forced evolution should be to restore the reputation of athletes whom the organization has demonized for capitalizing on their own fame.

Like the people with marijuana convictions who want their records expunged as states legalize the drug, athletes whom NCAA officials punished under the old, discredited rules deserve clemency now. “I never cheated this game,” Reggie Bush, the former University of Southern California star running back, wrote on Twitter Thursday. “That was what they wanted you to believe about me.”

Bush played brilliantly for USC from 2003 to 2005 and won the Heisman Trophy, college football’s highest honor. Because the NCAA later concluded that Bush and his family had accepted money and perks—reportedly worth about $300,000—from two aspiring sports marketers, he received one of the most severe punishments in the history of college athletics. The records he set were stricken from the books. Bush carries the humiliating distinction of being the only player who ever had to return his Heisman. Not even O. J. Simpson, who famously was accused of double murder, was forced to give up his 1968 trophy.

USC had to vacate 14 wins that Bush played in, including the Trojans’ national-championship victory over Oklahoma in 2005. USC was also docked 30 scholarships and excluded from the postseason for two years. Bush became an outcast at the school. His jersey was even taken down at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Trojans’ home stadium. Imagine leading a program to 34 straight victories and then being treated as if you never existed. Although the scandal didn’t impact Bush’s NFL-draft status—he was selected second overall in 2006—Bush was stuck with the perception that he was a greedy athlete who had torpedoed the reputation of his school for personal gain.

By exploiting players and cutting them completely out of the financial success of college sports, the NCAA created an underground economy that college athletes such as Bush took advantage of. Once those players were caught, the NCAA hypocritically punished them for partaking in the billion-dollar economy that they built.

If not for the more than 20 states that passed laws granting college athletes name, image, and likeness rights, the NCAA would never have been motivated to approve a measure on Wednesday that opened the floodgates for athletes to begin monetizing their success the following day. For decades, even as college athletics grew into a big-money enterprise and coaches in football and men’s basketball programs took home ever larger paychecks, the NCAA has insisted that student athletes are amateurs and punished those who accepted financial benefits. These punishments have not only damaged those athletes’ reputation but also cost them professional opportunities and damaged their legacy as players.

In a statement released on Thursday, Bush expressed frustration over his treatment. “It is my strong belief that I won the Heisman Trophy … due to my hard work and dedication on the football field and it is also my firm belief that my records should be reinstated.”

As he fights to remove the stain on his reputation, other college athletes are aggressively taking advantage of their newfound freedom. The NCAA has dwelled comfortably on the wrong side of history for years, but now the organization has an enormous opportunity to right some of its past mistakes.

The NCAA’s path to financial success is littered with stories of the NCAA robbing players of opportunities to continue its charade of amateurism. In 2010, Terrelle Pryor, then a star quarterback for Ohio State, was suspended for multiple games and was forced to repay $2,500 for selling his own memorabilia and receiving discounted tattoos. Rather than serve a five-game suspension as a college player, Pryor chose to forgo his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL’s supplemental draft. However, in a shocking, unprecedented, and unnecessarily meddlesome move, the NFL sided with the NCAA and suspended Pryor for the first five games of his rookie season as a pro. Pryor’s NFL career lasted only seven seasons, but might it have lasted longer or turned out differently had he not entered the league under a cloud of suspicion—or had he spent one more year honing his abilities at OSU?

Another egregious example of the NCAA’s hypocritical heavy-handedness is how the organization dealt with the Fab Five, the precocious quintet of University of Michigan freshmen who became the biggest college-basketball sensation in the early 1990s.

The Fab Five made it to consecutive national-championship games in 1992 and 1993. But an investigation later revealed that a former booster, Ed Martin, had given more than $600,000 to several players in Michigan’s program during the 1990s. The marquee power forward Chris Webber was not only the centerpiece for those dominant Fab Five teams but one of the key figures accused of accepting large sums of money from Martin. Michigan’s basketball program took years to recover from the NCAA’s punishment, which included forfeiting 112 victories. Michigan even took down and put away the Fab Five’s Final Four banners.

Once the name, image, and likeness rights for college athletes were granted, Webber, like Bush, wondered about restitution. “Ummmmmmm soooo …whoever has the key please hit me up,” Webber tweeted Thursday. “I need that key.. you know… the one to the secret room with the Banners…”

In reality, the NCAA will never be able to fully atone for selling the labor of college athletes while denying them even a sliver of the enormous proceeds. But the NCAA should atone as much as it can—even if some gestures are largely symbolic. Records should be reinstated. Banners and jerseys should be returned to places of honor. A Heisman Trophy should be put back into the hands of its rightful owner. Expunging the punishments that athletes have suffered won’t replace their losses. But it’s at least an acknowledgment of the wrongs that were committed.