It’s Time to Give Reggie Bush His Heisman Trophy Back
It's time for the NCAA to give former USC running back Reggie Bush his Heisman Trophy back.
Not in a few years. Not when Bush is old and gray and the NCAA looks back and apologizes for its decades-old misdeeds and finally does the right thing.
It needs to be done now.
In the history of the NCAA exploiting young black men for profit then discarding and publicly shaming them when the going gets tough, Bush's case sits near or at the top of the list and has the most clear-cut path to righting a wrong.
It's time to give Reggie Bush his Heisman Trophy back, and here's why.
Reggie Bush: 2005 Heisman Trophy Winner
Since 1936, the Heisman Trophy has been the most prestigious and oldest award in college football — meant to award the very best player every year.
The Heisman wasn't awarded to a Black player for the first time until Syracuse running back Ernie Davis won in 1961 — 26 years in — and no player west of the Mississippi River won the award until Oregon State quarterback Terry Baker won a year later in 1962.
In 87 years, 41 schools have produced Heisman Trophy winners. Of those 87 winners — a group that includes felons, murderers and a man who once was caught counterfeiting millions of dollars — only one has been forced to return his Heisman, and he wasn't any of the aforementioned rule breakers.
That person is 2005 Heisman Trophy winner and USC running back Reggie Bush.
Bush's Season for the Ages
Reggie Bush was a five-star recruit in the Class of 2003 out of Helix High in suburban San Diego, where he was a teammate of quarterback Alex Smith — the two would make history in 2004 when they became the first high school teammates to be Heisman Trophy finalists in the same year. Smith would go on to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers.
While Bush wouldn't win in 2004 — USC quarterback Matt Leinart won that year — he would win in 2005 when USC tried to win its third consecutive national championship, and Bush wowed the nation with almost 3,000 all-purpose yards and 19 touchdowns.
While USC failed to win another national title, Bush swept all of college football's top awards, including the Doak Walker Award, Walter Camp Award, AP College Football Player of the Year, Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and, finally, the Heisman Trophy in a landslide victory over Leinart and Texas quarterback Vince Young.
USC's History of Heisman Trophy Winners
Bush was the third Heisman Trophy winner from USC in a four-year stretch, following quarterback Carson Palmer in 2002 and quarterback Matt Leinart in 2004 — no USC player has won a Heisman since Bush.
Bush was the seventh overall winner from USC — a total that now officially stands at six — following Mike Garrett (1965), O.J. Simpson (1968), Charles White (1979), Marcus Allen (1981), Palmer and Leinart.
Only Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oklahoma can officially claim more Heisman winners than USC with seven each. Alabama's four Heisman Trophy winners trail USC, but it should be noted … all four of the Crimson Tide's wins have come since 2009.
Why Did Reggie Bush Lose His Heisman?
Shortly following the end of his Heisman Trophy-winning season in 2005, Bush made himself eligible for the 2006 NFL Draft, where he was selected No. 2 overall by the New Orleans Saints.
It was also in 2006 that reports began to surface of a possible investigation into whether or not Bush and his family had received improper benefits during his time at USC.
In 2007, sports agent Lloyd Lake sued Bush and his family in an attempt to get back approximately $292,000 in cash and gifts. By 2009, The Los Angeles Times confirmed the NCAA had merged two investigations into one for USC athletic programs, combining its investigation into Bush and former USC basketball star O.J. Mayo.
NCAA Drops the Hammer on Bush
Reggie Bush settled the lawsuit in April 2010, but shortly after the lawsuit was settled, the NCAA dropped the hammer on Bush and the USC football program. It would represent some of the harshest penalties in NCAA history.
The NCAA determined Bush had received "lavish" gifts from Lake and his business partner, Michael Michaels, which would result in wide-ranging penalties for both the college athlete and the school:
- USC stripped of its 2004 BCS national championship
- USC forfeited all of its wins from 2005
- USC banned from bowl games in 2010 and 2011
- USC stripped of 30 scholarships over three years
- USC running backs coach Todd McNair banned from off-campus recruiting for one year
- Bush forced to vacate Doak Walker Award, Walter Camp Award and Heisman Trophy
- USC forced to disassociate itself from Bush for one decade, including removing all jerseys and murals of Bush on its campus
"It felt like I died when I had to hear that there weren't gonna be scholarships for kids because of me or because of something connected to me ... I'm still not over that. It's just something you learn to live with," Bush told The Athletic in 2020.
Who Was Paul Dee?
In a stunning act of hypocrisy, NCAA infractions committee chairman Paul Dee was assigned to oversee the investigation into Reggie Bush and decided on the subsequent punishment in 2010. Dee, who died in 2012, was the athletic director at the University of Miami from 1993 to 2008. From 1993 to 1995 federal investigators determined 57 Miami football players received over $200,000 in Pell Grant payments from falsified applications in what the feds called "perhaps the largest centralized fraud ever committed in the history of the Pell Grant program."
In that same time, Miami provided more than $400,000 in other improper payments to Miami football players and didn't properly implement its drug-testing program. From 2002 through the end of Dee's time at Miami, booster and convicted-felon Nevin Shapiro provided Miami football and basketball players with an almost constant stream of benefits that violated NCAA rules, including cash payments, gifts, prostitutes and housing, among other things.
All of that, under Dee's watch. "High-profile players deserve high-profile enforcement," Dee said after the penalties for Bush and USC were announced.
Heisman Trophy Winners Were Not Always the Best Guys
And let's be real: Heisman Trophy winners don't have to be choir boys. No one is naive enough to think that. While most of the 87 winners of the Heisman seem like pretty good guys, to have Bush singled out as the lone winner forced to vacate his trophy seems ridiculous when put into the context of the misdeeds of some of the other winners.
Most famously, 1968 winner and USC running back O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman in 1995 but found liable for their murders in a civil trial. Simpson eventually served 10 years in prison in Nevada for armed robbery.
LSU running back Billy Cannon, the 1950 Heisman winner, served 2.5 years in prison in the early 1980s after authorities found almost $6 million in counterfeit bills buried in ice coolers in his backyard. Notre Dame halfback Paul Hornung, the 1956 winner, was suspended indefinitely by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle in 1963 for gambling on NFL games. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman winner, has a history of domestic violence that includes multiple arrests. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, the 2013 Heisman winner, has been his own dumpster fire of sexual assault allegations, shoplifting and was ultimately suspended for three games by the NFL for groping an Uber driver in 2018.
Should I go on?
Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) Changes NCAA Forever
There has been no better argument for giving Reggie Bush his Heisman Trophy back — aside from common sense and just doing the right thing — than the advent of the NCAA ruling players could profit off their name, image and likeness beginning in July 2021.
While some football fans might think the advent of NIL has hurt the game, there are those of us who look at it as the NCAA following one of its great wrongs of making billions — yes, billions — of dollars over the years from athletes who were compensated in the form of scholarships that amounted to just a small fraction of the money they brought to the university.
Looking through the prism of the NIL, few athletes would have had more value on the college level than Bush. Just look at the top NIL valuations in today's economy, which stretch almost into the tens of millions for today's current athletes and ask yourself … where would Bush rank? The money he would have taken in, legally, would have made the $300,000 he was ultimately punished for look like a pittance.
Give Reggie Bush His Heisman Trophy Back
There is no bylaw that would prevent the Heisman Trophy Trust, which gives out the Heisman Trophy, from returning the Heisman Trophy to Reggie Bush. The Heisman Trust, which has run the award's distribution after taking over for the Downtown Athletic Club in 2002, isn't without its own controversies surrounding its philanthropy over the years and isn't run by the NCAA, so there's not a conflict of interest there.
Even Bush has campaigned to get his Heisman back since the advent of the NIL rules, and USC welcomed him back into its fold following the end of their 10-year ban of association with the former All-American. The Heisman Trust has told Bush they won't communicate with him. Bush played 11 seasons in the NFL for five teams, winning a Super Bowl with the Saints in 2010 and being named an NFL All-Pro in 2008.
Rarely in life — much less in college sports — do we get a chance to right our wrongs in any sort of definitive way. Most of the time our mistakes are just things we have to live with. In this case, there's such a clear-cut path to making a wrong a right that you have to wonder what the reasons are that it wouldn't happen.
It's time to give Reggie Bush his Heisman Trophy back.
I'll even pay for the shipping costs.