A graphic showing Reggie Bush with his reinstated Heisman Trophy. A graphic showing Reggie Bush with his reinstated Heisman Trophy. (Central photo from @HeismanTrophy on Twitter/X.)

Throughout the history of college football, there have always been players who received “improper benefits” not allowed by the NCAA. And there have always been controversies when some of those arrangements have been found out. There were even controversies on that front before the 1906 founding of the NCAA.

But the name, image, and likeness era of the last few years has sparked dramatic change there. While there are still some restrictions on athletes, and while their NIL payments are not supposed to be for play, the era of intense scandal over paying players seems to be gone. And that’s now sparking some changes to the historical record as well, particularly with Wednesday’s reinstatement of Reggie Bush’s 2005 Heisman Trophy. That came with a remarkable statement from the Heisman Trust on this decision being made thanks to changes in the game today:

“We are thrilled to welcome Reggie Bush back to the Heisman family in recognition of his collegiate accomplishments,” said Michael Comerford, President of The Heisman Trophy Trust. “We considered the enormous changes in college athletics over the last several years in deciding that now is the right time to reinstate the Trophy for Reggie.  We are so happy to welcome him back.” 

ESPN’s Pete Thamel has more on the process involved:

The decision to reinstate the Heisman Trophy was based on a “deliberative process” by the Heisman Trust to monitor a sea change in college athletics in recent years. The Trust cited “fundamental changes in college athletics” in which rules that have allowed “student athlete compensation” to become “an accepted practice and appears here to stay.”

…In its decision-making, the Heisman Trust noted the 2021 Supreme Court decision against the NCAA in the Alston case, which the Trust said “questioned the legality of the NCAA’s amateurism model and opened the door to student athlete compensation.”

“Recognizing that the compensation of student athletes is an accepted practice and appears here to stay, these fundamental changes in college athletics led the Trust to decide that now is the right time to return the Trophy to Bush, who unquestionably was the most outstanding college football player of 2005,” the Heisman Trophy Trust said.

That decision to return Bush’s trophy (taken away in 2010 as part of wider sanctions against USC) was quickly celebrated by many. That included the cast of ESPN’s Get Up, as well as 2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel (who had been publicly lobbying for the return of Bush’s trophy, and said he wouldn’t attend the ceremony again until that happened):

Why does the return of a 2005 trophy particularly matter now? Well, sports history matters, and college football history is important. And there are several dimensions to the Bush case that matter going forward. One is that he was far from the only Heisman winner to be paid in violation of NCAA rules, but he was the only Heisman winner to have his trophy revoked for any reason.

Indeed, 2021 saw Manziel discuss the money he got for autograph signings while at Texas A&M. And earlier this year, Manziel said his father (without his knowledge) told Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin Manziel would stay in school another year for $3 million. But what’s maybe most notable in here are the comments Manziel made in that last link about how widespread pay-for-play was:

“My dad did this without me knowing. And I ain’t mad at him about it for nothing. It’s the way the business worked back then. There was a bag man. There was a bag man at LSU. There was a bag man at ‘Bama. There was a bag man at every school around the country if you were competing for a national title.”

The idea of a “bag man” at most schools was well-known by that point. And Steven Godfrey got a bunch of them on the record (albeit anonymously) in 2014 in a piece at SB Nation. But a significant comment there was one of those individuals discussing how they’d prefer a system where players received above-board salaries (even though it still wouldn’t stop extra benefits):

”If we could take a vote for these kids to make a real salary every season, I would vote for it. $40,000 or something. Goes back to mama, buys them a car, lets them go live like normal people after they work their asses off for us. But let’s be honest, that ain’t gonna stop all this. If everyone gets $40,000, someone would still be trying to give ‘em 40 extra on the side.”

We’re still not at a point where players can actually be paid by schools or conferences, although that may be coming. But NIL has certainly changed the discussion around player compensation from “It happens, but we pretend it doesn’t, and we punish the people we specifically catch” to “It happens, but we pretend it’s for other things.” And while there still could potentially be school and/or individual penalties for specific violations of NIL rules, even that’s up for debate at the moment, with the NCAA rules currently frozen while a court case involving the University of Tennessee plays out.

It should be noted that the NCAA’s punishment of USC and Bush (which involved the school vacating its 2004 national title as well as a number of other games and receiving sanctions going forward, in addition to the forfeit of Bush’s Heisman trophy) was widely criticized at the time. And that’s been the case with many of these pay-for-play cases, including the “death penalty” at SMU applied in 1987 over 1970s and 1980s violations.

There have always been those arguing for strict amateurism rules, heavy NCAA investigations of improprieties, and punishment for found violations (especially at rival schools). But there have also always been those critical of the rules and/or their enforcement. And the latter group is certainly winning now, and this move with Bush even gives them a change to the historical record.

Changes to sports history shouldn’t be made lightly. And there is still an argument some will undoubtedly make that this return shouldn’t have happened, saying that Bush’s actions at USC still violated the rules of the time regardless of what’s since changed in college sports. But this is about compensation rather than anything performance-enhancing. So it’s only a “cheating” debate (and there are lots of those, and they tend to be complicated in their own right) in a very selective light.

And the extremely selective investigations and punishments with pay-for-play over the years made Bush’s revoked trophy stand out as a not particularly fair move. That was especially notable after Manziel came forward with his stories of being paid and there was no real discussion of revoking his Heisman. Indeed, no one else has ever had a Heisman stripped, not even O.J. Simpson. So those actions against Bush always stood out.

A case that comes to mind with Bush is that of Jim Thorpe. One of the greatest multi-sport athletes ever, Thorpe had his 1912 Olympic decathlon and pentathlon medals stripped in 1913 after it emerged that he’d played “professional” baseball for as little as $2 per game. 110 years after that Olympics, the IOC reinstated those medals and recognized him as the sole winner of those events, something fully appropriate in an era where professional athletes now compete in those Games in their own sport.

As with Bush, it took a tremendous amount of lobbying and pressure to make the Thorpe change happen and correct an official record. But, also as with Bush, that official history now reflects how most people see what happened. And unlike with Thorpe, this decision happened in time for Bush to see it, and he can now be an unquestioned (or, at least, only minimally-questioned) ambassador for college football (which he largely already was) and for the Heisman Trophy.

There certainly can be further discussions about if other history should change in the wake of this Bush decision. It’s notable that this is a Heisman Trust move, not a NCAA move; it doesn’t restore USC’s vacated championship. Conversations on if that and other school win and title vacations over pay-for-play certainly can happen, but they are thornier. And we’ll see if any of that gains momentum, or if Bush’s trophy restoration stands alone.

But even if this return of Bush’s Heisman is the only real correction of the record around pay-for-play, it’s still notable. This is a case where many thought the NCAA got it wrong even at the time. It’s a case that looked particularly absurd now, given the new NIL era. And that new era has now led to a change to the past.

Perhaps even more importantly, the Bush decision stands as a clear landmark ending an era of serious pay-for-play controversies. There still may be some around specific NIL rule violations, including whatever winds up coming from that Tennessee case. But the general concept of college athletes being paid is not really controversial now.

Yes, there’s still a divide over college athletes are specifically paid for. But even that may change before too long. And the idea of punishing athletes just for being paid rather than being “amateurs” (which really wasn’t the case for much of college sports’ history) is well out of favor these days. And this decision serves as a clear indication of how dramatically the college sports landscape has changed in the last decade-plus since Bush’s Heisman was stripped.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.