The University of Southern California football team has been stripped of its 2004 season national championship, because their star running back Reggie Bush was receiving “improper benefits” while he played for them.
What this story is really about, however, is trying to ensure that the players receive as little as possible of the vast revenues accumulated by the colleges, the leagues, and the BCS cartel.
Pro sports are, obviously, a huge moneymaker in America. The most successful league (arguably, since raw numbers are hard to come by) is the NFL, whose players make quite a lot of money (even though ownership is apparently willing to blow the league up in order to change that). But trailing the NFL by only a small amount in popularity is college football, whose players get scholarships—and no more. At least, no more to the extent that the NCAA can enforce that, and they try to safeguard “the amateur spirit” with amazing bureaucratic zeal.
Top college football coaches are often paid more than their professional counterparts. College athletic departments are laden with football-related positions, all no doubt paying quite well. The people who run the leagues, many of which may soon have their own television networks, are doubtless also making piles of cash. It’s unclear whether or not the universities themselves make money from football, but there’s plenty of money going around… it’s just that it would be ethically wrong, a terrible, terrible ethical violation, if the players were to get any of it beyond their scholarships.
And that’s why the NCAA has retroactively stated that Reggie Bush wasn’t eligible to play for USC—because he received “improper gifts” during his college football career. I’m not sure if they established that these gifts were inducements to play for USC or whether they were actually attempts by pro sports agents to gain Bush as a client, and there’s a difference there. The only good argument for NCAA enforcement of no-money-for-players regulations is that without such enforcement the bigger colleges would have an unfair recruiting advantage (one counterargument is of course that they do anyway, and that this kind of thing goes on all the time).
But if Bush was receiving money not to play at USC but as part of negotiations over a cut of his future NFL earnings, that of course has no bearing on USC’s recruiting. The NCAA position is that it doesn’t matter, but this is really about longer-term enforcement; if it were okay for pro agents to give money to athletes, soon colleges would have under-the-table deals with agents to aid their recruiting, and there’d be so much money flowing around the stars anyway that enforcement might become impossible. In addition, with that money in the open, the teammates who weren’t going to make it to the NFL might start getting a little antsy, and you’d have the equivalent of labor unrest, which the NCAA definitely want to avoid.
As a result, Reggie Bush receiving “lavish gifts” (including a limousine ride, how scandalous!) from agents courting him for his NFL prospects constitutes “cheating” on the part of USC, and USC is punished for this in a variety of ways, including, now, the retroactive stripping of the title (which is a bizarre concept in a number of ways, especially since the number two team from that year, the Auburn Tigers, are not getting the championship retroactively).
Bush returned the Heisman Trophy he won, which I think is a shame; I think he should have refused to give it up, insisted that he earned it, and that his on-field performances were worthy of it and that his successfully getting an advance (which is effectively what it was) on his NFL pay, which he also earned, did not in any way constitute “cheating”, and that the NCAA had only itself to blame for the ridiculous situation and could stick one of its appendages into one of its orifices that has never seen the light of day.