May 23, 2024

The rules have changed. The landscape is different. The shunning became silly.

Reggie Bush deserves to have his Heisman Trophy back, and it’s good that the folks from the Heisman Trust finally came to their senses Wednesday and handed it back over.

But can we please slow down with the victory lap?

I wrote last summer that Bush deserved to have the trophy returned because, by today’s college sports salary standards, he never did anything wrong. This was a common-sense transaction, nothing deeper, nothing more.

I never guessed the decision would be met with such unwarranted hubris.

Bush issued a statement filled with talk of ‘’vindication” and claiming that this absolves him of all wrongdoing.

This absolves him of nothing.

Jennifer Cohen, the USC athletic director, issued a statement praising Bush for his “utmost resiliency and heart.”

Resiliency in the face of … what exactly? His poor decisions that led to the demolition of a historic football power?

Everyone, please, just stop.

One can surely celebrate the return of the Heisman without treating Bush like a freed hostage. One can certainly recognize the misguided mishandling of his Heisman without forgetting that, in a different era, he didn’t deserve it.

Reggie Bush is not a victim. The fact that he has regained a piece of hardware produced by his amazing football skills doesn’t change the fact that — based on rules of a different era — the NCAA determined he broke those rules.

After the NCAA ruled he brazenly disregarded its now-antiquated rules, its committee on infractions sent USC into a dark hole from which it has never emerged.

Bush’s alleged acceptance of rent-free housing for his parents and $300,000 from two sports agents led to NCAA sanctions that ran the football program into the ground.

In the 14 years since the Bush investigation essentially burned down Heritage Hall, the Trojans have never regained national prominence. They have yet to play for a national title. They have one major bowl win. They have gone through six coaches. They have endured controversy and scandal and general chaos.

By losing 30 scholarships and being placed on two years’ probation, they fell behind the rest of the college football world and have never been able to catch up.

Meanwhile, Bush scurried away from the smoking wreckage with an 11-year, $63-million pro career and a since-ended national television gig.

He’s never apologized for anything. He’s never accepted responsibility for his role in the probation. He has seemingly never once thought of all the overmatched young Trojans who were beaten down for the last decade because the program had been stripped of its foundation.

One could, and should, argue that the historic NCAA sanctions were rash and radical and wrong and regrettable. Because the NCAA no longer has any power, it will never again punish anyone like it punished USC.

Nonetheless, at the time, the punishment was real, and Bush’s involvement in it was real bad, and for everyone to ignore that is to disrespect all the lives that were forever changed by his actions.

“I want to make it abundantly clear that I have always acted with integrity and in accordance with the rules and regulations set forth by the NCAA,” Bush said Wednesday in a statement. “The allegations brought against me were unfounded and unsupported by evidence, and I am grateful that the truth is finally prevailing.”

One problem. The Heisman Trust president never said anything about Bush’s innocence.

“We considered the enormous changes in college athletics over the last several years in deciding that now is the right time to reinstate the Trophy for Reggie,” said Michael Comerford, president of the Trust.

In other words, it’s not that Bush didn’t break the speed limit, it’s that the speed limit has changed. And indeed, judging by today’s high salaries for top college football players, Bush was actually severely underpaid for his efforts.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, at the time, he was still receiving extra benefits when players weren’t supposed to receive extra benefits. The rules stank, but the rules were the rules, and everyone knew them, and Bush allegedly broke them, and no shiny trophy is going to change that.

In her statement, Cohen welcomed Bush as a returning hero, saying, “He has displayed the utmost resiliency and heart throughout this process and is so deserving of every accolade and trophy he’s ever received.”

Hmmm. One wonders if Bush had displayed less resiliency and heart during the process — and actually cooperated — would USC would have been dinged so badly?

Lincoln Riley got it right in his statement because he stuck to football. Goodness, let’s also not forget, Reggie Bush was really good at football, the best college running back I’ve ever seen, and I’m not alone.

“Reggie’s reintroduction to the Heisman family is a special moment for every person that has been associated with USC football,” Riley said. “We are thrilled that Reggie’s athletic accomplishments as one of the greatest to ever play the game can officially be recognized. For a long time, the Heisman and USC have been synonymous, and being able to acknowledge all eight of our winners is extraordinary.”

So go ahead, Trojans, celebrate this like the football victory that it is. Make a big deal about retiring the number 5 and draping it across the Coliseum end zone seats. Roar for him as he leads the Trojans out of the Coliseum tunnel for this fall’s home opener against Utah State.

It’s a good thing that Reggie Bush will finally be allowed to officially take his place in Trojans history.

But, like the running back himself, that history swerves, and spins, and can be tough to tackle.

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