In Defense of Reggie Bush

Kevork Djansezian / AP

Poor Reggie Bush. Five years into the NFL, and the former No. 2 draft pick still isn’t a starter. Once known for running the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, he suddenly can’t even keep up with the Kardashians. Now, after getting tangled up in a pay-to-play scandal, Bush has returned his Heisman Trophy. The bloom is off the Rose Bowl.

Bush, of course, was a standout running back for the University of Southern California from 2003 to 2005, racking up numerous awards and winning the Heisman during his final season. But following reports that he and his family accepted thousands of dollars in financial benefits from sports agents during his USC days, the blogosphere and several columnists are calling for his head, and the Heisman Trust had little choice but to force him to forfeit his trophy.

But it’s time to come to the defense of Reggie Bush. This Trojan needs protection.

First, the obvious arguments: Bush was a vulnerable 18-year-old when agents started flashing gobs of money in his face. He never cheated between the lines, used drugs, or bet on the game. Top college players have always accepted gifts. Since joining the New Orleans Saints, Bush has been something of a role model, giving plenty of money to charity. And he was, without a doubt, the best college football player during the 2005 season; it’s impossible to pretend all those preternatural touchdown runs never happened.

But here’s what matters most: Bush has become the fall guy for a Division 1 football system that bankrupts its players while pouring money into the pockets of fat cats in executive suites. Rather than blame Bush, we should blame the system, which is in desperate need of an overhaul.

The line between amateur and professional football has never been so hazy, and the concept of the innocent “student athletes” playing for the pride of old Harvard was abandoned decades ago. The game is now a business, and the only people who don’t take a cut are the players. Instead, many of them are manipulated by greedy agents and corrupt coaches.

“Reggie Bush makes a little bit of money and somehow he’s made out to be the only bad guy in this, which seems ridiculous to me,” says Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector, a Washington think tank. “He was generating fantastic amounts of money for USC —both for the coaches and the university, in the form of alumni contributions—as well as for the people who run ESPN. And yet somehow he’s being shamed for getting a little value for what he’s contributing. The hypocrisy is mind-boggling.”

More than ever before, colleges are in dire financial straits, and yet collegiate athletic organizations are making record profits. According to a recent report by the Knight Foundation on Intercollegiate Athletics, from 2005 to 2008 the median spending per athlete increased by 38 percent, to $84,446, while the median spending per student increased by 20 percent, to $13,349. Last year the NCAA spent nearly $6 million to compensate 14 of its highest-ranking executives. As head coach of USC, Pete Carroll made $4.4 million, while his players earned nothing.

Bush is not the only player being crucified by the system. Last week, a top prospect at the University of Georgia was suspended by the NCAA for four games for selling his game-day jersey—even though the university makes thousands of dollars selling similar jerseys for as much as $150 each.

Some people within the academy go as far as to call for an end to college sports as we know it. “Interscholastic programs have no educational justification and, in a time of financial austerity, they’re a luxury we can no longer afford,” says Mark C. Taylor, a Columbia University religion professor and recent author of Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming our Colleges and Universities. “With public universities collapsing and many private institutions carrying unsustainable levels of debt, all physical, athletic, and interscholastic programs across the country should be shut down immediately.”

While Taylor’s solution is extreme, the NFL needs to keep the system in check by setting up a development league so that high school stars motivated only by NFL signing bonuses can make a decent buck before entering the draft. Too many players are coddled through an academic curriculum they often don’t care about, and the idea that some of today’s student athletes are indeed “students” puts the B.S. in B.C.S. Baseball and basketball already have developmental leagues in place.

photos-the-finest-face--and-body-paintings-in-sports-fandom-image0 The Finest Face (and Body) Paintings in Sports Fandom Chris Carlson / AP

To be sure, the lure of a development league wouldn’t be as attractive to a high-school football star seeking nothing more than exposure. “I can’t imagine that many kids out of high school would voluntarily pass a chance to play college football, especially if they have ambitions of playing in the NFL,” says Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel, adding: “The emphasis on getting into the NBA kicks in a lot earlier, mostly because they can turn pro after a year, whereas in football you have to wait three years.”

Fair point, but if there’s anything that trumps exposure, it’s money. With a developmental league, someone like Bush could canoodle with as many agents as he fancied. He might still have enrolled at USC, but at least he would’ve had a money-making option.

Bush was no saint before being Sainted in New Orleans. But to strip him of his Heisman misses the point. His agents tugged him into their greedy pay-to-play games, and he shouldn’t be the one getting played. He put his body and brain at risk every day for a broken system that doesn’t award players a nickel in return. He shouldn’t be blamed for accepting a few suits and a home for his folks. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.