A couple months ago I polled my Heisman panel to get their opinion on the status of Reggie Bush’s 2005 Heisman. I asked if he should be stripped of the award if he was indeed found to be retroactively ineligible.
The overwhelming majority of my panel did not want to strip Bush of the Heisman in that scenario.
Yesterday, I posed the following question again to the panel:
1. Since Reggie Bush has been found guilty by the NCAA of having taken money from an agent, and has thus been deemed to have been ineligible for the 2005 season, should his Heisman Trophy be vacated or handed to someone else, yes or no?
But I also added this:
2. If Bush’s trophy is taken away, should this change how we look at Heisman winners past and future? Should old allegations (like Charles Woodson taking money in 1997) be looked at again and should future candidates be completely scoped for cleanliness before being allowed to proceed? In other words, how does the act of taking a past Heisman away change the Heisman as we know it?
I thought I’d share some of the responses with you.
The consensus so far is that, whatever Bush did off the field, he won the Heisman on the field and therefore the trophy should not be vacated:
“The return of Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy replica was a good PR move by incoming USC president, Max Nikias, but it would be overkill if the Heisman Trust remands the real thing. While accepting benefits is clearly wrong, it had little, if anything, to do with Bush’s on-field performance. I vote on what players do between the sidelines, not how they may or may not profit from it elsewhere.
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“The Heisman Trophy explicitly honors a player who pursues “excellence with integrity.” The Heisman Trophy Trust explicitly “ensures the … integrity of this award. So after 75 years, the Downtown Athletic Club morality police should put out the APB on Reggie Bush’s mantel decor? Please. The idea that every Heisman winner but Bush has demonstrated unimpeachable integrity is hopelessly naïve. College athletics was dirty before Reggie Bush and will be after Reggie Bush. Asking him to ship a statue back is a grandiose, reactionary, pointless exercise. It won’t change anything, least of all how we view the Heisman Trophy. It goes to college football’s best player, always has, and usually without much concern about how he got there.”
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“No. It’s not as if the cash he took was performance-enhancing.”
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“Vacating the Heisman doesn’t change the fact that Bush did win it that year. I don’t think vacating it changes history any more than when teams on probation “vacate” wins. And I don’t think the trophy should then be given to runner-up Vince Young. He probably wouldn’t even want it now. I don’t condone what Bush did, but I doubt he’s the only Heisman recipient that received illegal benefits. That said, if the Heisman Trust did vacate the ’05 trophy and ask that it be returned I can understand their position.”
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“Much like vacated wins and championships, rescinding Bush’s Heisman would be pointlessly symbolic. It doesn’t cause anyone to forget that run against Fresno State, hurdling the UCLA defender or anything else that happened on the field that season.”
Not everyone agreed with this sentiment, however:
“It should be vacated.. Something feels bizarre about the the thought of then handing it over to Vince Young, though. It’s not like he was named the runner-up in a beauty pageant… or maybe he was I guess. Still, he got what matters most, the national title ring.”
As to the second question:
“I think going forward, you handle it the best you can as the NCAA has outlined it.”
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“I can see it now, Peyton Manning hiring investigators to dig into Charles Woodson’s college receipts. Darren McFadden snooping around Columbus, Ohio, looking for that booster who paid Troy Smith to sign autographs at a nursing home.”
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“If the Heisman Trophy is vacated then I do agree that you then have to look into at every winner to find if they also received anything that would have rendered them ineligible. Should O.J. Simpson’s name removed from the list of winners? I don’t know if candidates can be completely scoped to ensure they’re eliglble during the season. No one knew about Bush until after his USC career ended.”
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“Not in favor of taking away Heismans.”
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“It’s not going to happen. The NCAA never investigated Woodson, so I can’t imagine the Heisman Trust will launch its own 13 years later.”
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“This is really the first time the idea of vacating the Heisman has come up. The incoming USC president kind of put the Trust in a corner when he returned the replica of Bush’s award to New York. From now on, if the NCAA finds any player has taken cash or extra benefits, all of their post season awards should be vacated.”
A lot of this talk has me thinking about the concept of awards and cheating in college football. Certainly, it’s clear that Bush was not in compliance with NCAA bylaws at the time of this Heisman win. However, it’s not clear to me how judging someone retroactively ineligible and then stripping them of an award can completely satisfy everything. Does it feel like he cheated in the traditional sense that we all think of cheating? Despite his retroactive status, the memory we had of watching that player excel still exists. Furthermore, as the voters above attest, taking money doesn’t explicitly give someone an advantage on the field in the way, for instance, that a performance enhancing drug does. Voters and the NCAA at the time deemed Bush to be eligible. Is that enough? Is it too messy to revisit it all?
Which brings up another subject. In the 1980s and 1990s, we all remember the various players who were dinged for steroids. Many of them won all kinds of awards and several got Heisman votes. In these cases, these players were truly cheating to gain an advantage on the field. Should we go back and vacate all those Outland, Lombardi and Butkus Awards that went to such cheaters? What about the votes these guys got in the Heisman? Should we vacate them and then re-tally the past Heisman votes? Maybe the results would be vastly different! Should Heisman winners be specifically screened for performance-enhancing drugs before being given the award? Why not?
I think the various agent scandals we are seeing percolating testify to the widespread shenanigans that go on in major college football. Odds are that past Heisman winners also took money. Should one player be singled out and punished just because he was the one who got caught?
Food for thought.