(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on May 20, 2010)
In 2005, when he was at the height of his powers, there was no more electrifying college football player than USC’s Reggie Bush. He ran with the speed of a methed-up cheetah and with the power of a ‘roided’ rhino; he dismantled the craftiest nickel packages, sprinted full speed for four quarters and could stop on a dime. On campus, they called him “lightning.”
With his recent Super Bowl victory, life on the football field has been bright.
But off the field it seems, life is anything but – and I’m not talking about Kim Kardashian. Later this week, the NCAA is expected to rule on their protracted investigation of the USC football program, the focal point of which was Bush’s alleged relationship with a San Diego sports agent while still matriculating.
If the independent reports are true and Reggie Bush and his family did benefit from their relationship with a sports agent, then Bush’s legacy – and that of the entire USC program during his tenure – could be tainted. When it’s all said and done, we might be remembering dear Reggie in infamy.
But Bush won’t be losing any sleep. Regardless of what happens to his Trojans record, he’s still getting paid by his NFL team, the New Orleans Saints, to the tune of almost $4 million a year. If he wished, he could cut that proverbial noose off his neck with diamond-crusted shears.
Sure, Bush might lose his Heisman trophy. But he could probably buy O.J.’s on eBay.
And USC? They’ll probably come out of this thing only slightly more wounded. They should expect a few years’ probation and the loss of a few scholarships, but it’s doubtful they’ll be taken off TV or banned from the postseason. They might have to forfeit a few wins, but they will likely get to keep their 2004 national title. More importantly for Trojans boosters, there will be little to no impact on recruitment.
For the Bushes and the Trojans, whatever happens will be in the past, and that’s where it will stay. But for the fans – not to mention the state of college football – there should be much more at stake.
Let’s assume that the NCAA finds out that this is all true (and considering Bush had to settle out of court with his accuser in 2007 they’re probably well past that) there are a few things that need to be done. The first would be to hand down all the punishments that it has threatened. They need to strip USC of their title and Bush of his Heisman and levy heavy scholarship restrictions. The message will be clear and resounding: the NCAA does not allow its athletes to be paid. The Pac-10 needs to do the same. You might think this is harsh. That’s exactly the point. It is no secret that elite scholar-athletes are in contact with sports agents while still in school and that many accept money from them. It is the law of the jungle. Money talks and ethics walk. But now is not the time to condone this. Not when a lack of corporate oversight could debilitate a nation with debt.
Of course, this isn’t about politics, it’s about football. And ethics belong in football the way ketchup belongs on rice. Right?
No. This is about more than some pretentious ethical appeal. This is about drawing a line in the sand that should not – cannot – be crossed. Because if we allow student athletes to be paid above the table, where will the line end?
At high school, where football games are already showcased on ESPN? In middle school, where precocious athletes are nationally ranked, despite their youth? Do you trust the character of a sports agent enough to give them access to your kids’ playgrounds? Then think about this: Video games and sneakers are MUCH cheaper than cars and houses.
Getting 12-year-olds to sign contracts would be easier than giving candy to a baby.
For loyal readers of Through the Fire I shall end my bombast on that note. Please forgive this week’s digression. Next month, I promise you a story more in the spirit of this column. I don’t want to give anything away, but it involves a robot, a Jehovah’s Witness and the South Bay’s best bowl of ramen. Hope you’ll read it.
Alex Isao Herbach can be reached by e-mail. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.