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Why Are USC Kids Paying for Reggie Bush’s Mistakes?

6 minute read
Sean Gregory

When the NCAA handed down its surprisingly harsh punishment on June 10 to the University of Southern California football team after finding that Reggie Bush, the 2005 Heisman trophy winner who is one of the greatest players in college football history, received illegal gifts from sports marketers, the organization was showered with kudos. Good for the NCAA, getting tough with cheaters. When a big dog like USC gets its comeuppance, it’s hard for anyone, aside from those who bleed Trojan cardinal and gold, to shed a tear.

Except that it’s not just Bush who’s being punished. As a result of his behavior — according to the NCAA, Bush received ineligible gifts like hotel stays and a rent-free home for his family — USC, which was cited for a lack of institutional control, will lose 30 scholarships over three years. Also, the team must “vacate” — essentially forfeit, except the opposing team gets no credit for a win — the 14 victories the team amassed with Bush in the backfield from December 2004 through the 2005 season. Bush could lose his Heisman, the school may be stripped of its 2004 national championship, and for the next two years, USC will be ineligible for post-season play.

In response to the sweeping penalties, Bush released a statement saying he was “disappointed” with the decision and “disagreed” with the NCAA’s findings. A USC official acknowledged that the violations occurred, but said the school would appeal the penalties, citing their severity. In a video statement, former USC coach Pete Carroll, who in January left the school to take the Seattle Seahawks head coaching job, said USC “didn’t know” about the “external elements” disrupting his program. “The facts don’t match the sanctions,” he said.

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But overlooked in the wake of the scandal are the (presumably) innocent victims of this affair: the players whose lifetime sweat and dreams have been shattered by a multi-millionaire NFL player who screwed up while some of them were still in middle school. Not that you can totally blame a guy like Bush, who grew up in a tough part of San Diego, for accepting some freebies after he generated millions of dollars for his alma mater. People have been pushing colleges to pay their athletes for years: that’s an entirely different issue. Bush broke the rules, and USC certainly deserves punishment. But the wrong people, kids — oversized and athletic, but kids nonetheless — are paying the price.

Imagine you’re one of the USC juniors or seniors who dreamed of winning a national championship at the storied school. You’ve already spent part of the summer toiling in the weight room to improve your position. Before the June 10 announcement of the NCAA penalties, this goal was real possibility. Now it’s gone. And assuming you too haven’t been getting a little cash on the side during your playing days — which, granted, we have learned is not the safest assumption for a football player who suits up for USC, but one that, unless a player is proven guilty, we must make — how is the NCAA punishment fair? If a company discovers that one of its employees stole money from its coffers five years ago, would current workers be told that they now can’t get a raise? The whole thing makes little sense.

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What would a fair penalty be? Let’s first look at the adults. Mike Garrett was the USC athletic director during the Bush era, and he still holds that position. He provided that lack of institutional control: the school’s men’s basketball and women’s tennis teams also committed violations. Why doesn’t the NCAA strongly recommend firing, or at least suspending, him? Carroll should have also been subject to such measures, but he’d already skipped town — pure coincidence, certainly.

The school deserves to lose scholarships, and to be banned from postseason play. But how about postponing these strictures for four years, so they don’t impact the current players? The Bush investigation is four years old, so the USC players took some risk when they signed on with the school. But they had no idea when the penalties might come down, nor how severe they might be. If the sanctions are imposed four years from now, future recruits can make an informed choice. They can go to USC, but they know they’ll be sitting out two post-seasons.

Perhaps the only aggrieved party in such a scenario would be the current USC coach, Lane Kiffin. But wait … My moment of sympathy for Kiffin just ended. College coaches are hired guns. After a year as head coach at the University of Tennessee, where his brash comments and questionable recruiting tactics alienated the entire Southeastern Conference, Kiffin ditched his Knoxville team for Hollywood. Yes, future penalties would impede his ability to build a long-term winner at USC. But Kiffin, a member of USC’s coaching staff during the Bush era, will be fine. He’s reportedly making around $4 million per year and has already displayed a preference for jumping from job to job. If he’s unhappy at USC, he can leap into another school’s arms.

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Likewise, the current players could transfer. For the USC juniors and seniors, the NCAA even waived the usual requirement that they sit out a year after changing schools (though they would lose their eligibility if they transferred to another school within USC’s conference, the Pac-10). But why should the players be forced to move? You don’t just snap your fingers and land in another dormitory. A university switch is a giant upheaval in a young person’s life, especially if they player actually liked life at USC — which is likely, given the team’s glamorous reputation and the school’s location in the Southern Cal sun. And what if a player is comfortable academically and has mapped out his major in a department where he has built relationships with the faculty? The NCAA, which purports to protect its “student-athletes,” is now giving such players incentive to disrupt their careers on and off the field.

It’s easy to be the tough guy. If the NCAA wants to prove it can be tough and fair, it should reconsider the penalties.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com