Column: Dropping the Ball

Reggie Bush tarnished the Heisman, and is right to return it
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The Heisman Trophy had humble beginnings. In 1935, the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City – a private organization with no ties to the NCAA or any major football conference or team – decided to give an award to the best player in college football. The next year, when the Club’s most famous member, John Heisman, died of pneumonia, the members named the award after him.

They made a fine choice. Heisman went to Brown University as an undergrad, and the University of Pennsylvania for his law degree before becoming a coach in 1892. He coached at six colleges, including Georgia Tech, where he led his team to a 33-game winning streak. Many historians consider him the father of the forward pass. And, on the side, Heisman was a skilled Shakespearean actor.

But his best line was his own. To start the season each fall, he would hold a football in his hand and tell his players, “Men, it is better to die as a young boy than to drop this ball.”

It did not take long for Heisman’s trophy to gain prestige. Today it’s probably the best-known trophy awarded to an American athlete. But, there is a catch: The winner has to be an eligible amateur athlete.

That never seemed to be a problem until Reggie Bush took home the hardware in 2005. No one questioned his achievements. He gained over 2,600 yards and scored 18 touchdowns for the University of Southern California. The Trojans have won seven Heisman Trophies, tying Notre Dame and Ohio State, and they claim more national titles than anyone. Or they used to.

The Trojans also apparently set some records for breaking the rules. Bush received more than a quarter million dollars in gifts from sports marketers – which people at USC knew about, and let slide. But when Bush signed a $20 million NFL contract and refused to pay back his benefactors, they sued him. And that’s how the famously feckless NCAA got their man.

Pete Carroll, the architect of this corrupt regime, magically decided to jump back to the NFL right before the NCAA hit USC with some of the harshest penalties any school has received in a quarter-century. USC’s athletic director, Mike Garret, was summarily fired – and rightly so. The Trojans had to “vacate” their victories – a fancy phrase for forfeiting – for their entire 2005 national title season.

But the current players will pay the real price. They will lose scholarships and not be able to go to a bowl game for a couple years.

There was, however, one unanswered question: With the Heisman winner declared ineligible, should Bush have to give back his trophy?

Lots of people thought not. After all, plenty of Heisman Trophy winners were horrible people – with O.J. Simpson leading the pack. I say, that’s beside the point. True, Reggie Bush did not commit a felony – but that’s why he’s losing his trophy, and not his freedom.

The apologists also argue that Bush had a great year, and won the award in a landslide. So what? That’s like praising Michael Milken’s business savvy for stealing more money than other folks earned honestly.

The Heisman people did the right thing. And, this week, when Reggie Bush announced he would return his trophy, he did the right thing, too – finally – and perhaps, for the first time.

And this once noble trophy, named for an uncommon man, got a bit of its dignity back, too.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By Mark Koroi
    September 17, 2010 at 7:15 pm | permalink

    “….[a]fter all plenty of Heisman Trophy winners were horrible people….”

    I strongly disagree with that statement.

    The vast majority of Heisman Trophy winners were outsanding individuals who were respected role models for others e.g. Vic Janowicz, Ernie Davis, and Pete Dawkins.

    I do not know of very many who could be deemed “horrible”.

  2. By ChuckL
    September 18, 2010 at 5:14 pm | permalink


    The hypocrisy of college football seems to know no bounds when it comes to insisting that the players remain amateurs. If they are truly amateurs, they should train like amateurs and the coaches and staff should be amateurs as well and universities should receive “amateur” compensation for ticket sales, broadcasting and merchandising rights. The fact is they train like pros and the coaches and staff are paid like pros. College sports is big business and continuing this charade of acting like college football players are “amateurs” is unjust and dishonest since it deprives the players of just compensation for their efforts. I do not think it is a stretch to compare college football programs to outright chattel slavery since the players are not even officially compensated at anything more than room & board and tuition (my understanding is that most players end up owing some money for the “privilege” of creating millions of dollars worth of entertainment for other people.) The education the typical college ball player receives is a cruel hoax of an education; there are even rules that prevent ball players from taking challenging academic courses.

    I would conclude by congratulating Reggie Bush in giving the finger to the NCAA and hopefully there will be more people like him in the future that will expose these college football programs for the corrupt slave plantations that they are. It is really unseemly for these programs to generate such huge profits for everyone but the players who make the game possible.