- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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How ironic it is for Reggie Bush that he proved more dexterous off the field than on it. An injury in the New Orleans Saints' 25-22 win in San Francisco is expected to keep Bush -- who makes a living darting and dodging, slashing in and out of trouble and deceiving defenders -- out of action for six weeks. All of his elusiveness couldn't keep him from fracturing his fibula as he tried to recover a muffed punt in windy Candlestick Park.
But his shifty skills served Bush well while he wore a tailored suit -- instead of shoulder pads -- through the private hearings and scripted news releases leading up to the past seven days, when the final details of his college career became known. Bush followed the athlete's handbook on how to act when you're caught: He was defiantly unconcerned when the dogged reporting by Yahoo! Sports first tailed him two years ago; then he was apologetic when his former school, USC, accepted NCAA sanctions and returned its copy of Bush's 2005 Heisman Trophy, admitting that it (and by extension, Bush) had acted improperly and irresponsibly; and finally, he appeared resigned later when he became the first player in college football history to relinquish his Heisman.
But that ending is no denouement at all.
Bush, fabulously rich and removed from the annoyances of his college transgressions, returned his prize with as much remorse as if he were returning a faulty power drill to the local hardware store. His former coach, Pete Carroll, already had made sure he was on the last chopper out of Saigon, safe from college jurisdictions as coach of the Seattle Seahawks. USC offered the appearance of (finally) accepting responsibility and showing some institutionwide regret but kept every bit of the millions Bush generated for the school.
And the NCAA got to feel self-satisfied by making a powerhouse like USC wait for its judgment, allowing for the painfully false appearance that it is a respectable enforcement body. In fact, its antiquated, hypocritical view of itself as an educational component allows predatory elements such as the ones who influenced Bush and hundreds of other college athletes and their families to exist in the first place.
So all the people get to say they're sorry without really saying for what. Or they get to thump their chests as administrators of penalties while they leave the structure in place that will allow for the same scandals to happen again.
Bush apologized, Jason Giambi-like, without admitting wrongdoing, a move that some of his brethren in baseball, football, cycling and track had already perfected. But the brazenness of the seamy quartet of NCAA executives, university presidents, coaches and players dwarfs even the worst days of BALCO because of the institutional, systemic corruption in the college game.
And in the process, Bush, the NCAA, Carroll and USC reminded the public of the low regard in which college sports holds it. Even hockey players can't skate the way this group did.
What we've learned from the Bush story is that the moral imperative upon which sports rely is one of this country's great myths. Professional and college sports receive lucrative tax breaks, publicly financed stadiums, relaxed government scrutiny and dozens of other special advantages based on the idea that athletic competition is vital to the national interest, that the people who compete in athletics at a world-class level have something valuable to teach the youth of America about ethics, morals and teamwork. Charitable relationships such as the NFL's United Way partnership and the NBA Cares programs often do good work and help numerous causes, but the pro leagues also profit from maintaining the notion that the value of sports extends far beyond that of mere entertainment. Billions of dollars are at stake behind the charity work.
These concepts may appear too sugary for today's hardened sports audience; cynicism is the best excuse for maintaining a corrupt order. The issue, though, isn't whether anyone believes that Reggie Bush or Pete Carroll or John Calipari is a role model, but that the institution of sports both counts on that false ideal and profits heavily from it.
The college game, at least at the highest levels, relies on a myth even more heinous than pro sports do: namely the antiquated idea that big-time college athletics at the basketball and football scholarship and coaching level contain a significant academic component. There was a time when having a student-athlete on campus -- especially one who would not normally have accrued the grade-point average to be admitted into the school -- served the higher purpose that exposure to the college environment could spark interest in a variety of subjects beyond sports.
Those days are long over. The NCAA knows this and must finally confront the reality that it needs to institute some form of compensation for the athlete.
In the past, a quality argument could be made against paying players by suggesting that student-athletes were already being paid in the form of a four-year education worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it's been common knowledge for at least 30 years now that college athletes with professional-level talent are not held to much of an academic standard.
The shuffling of major football and basketball conferences for profits, television and otherwise, and the expansion of the NCAA's ultrasuccessful basketball tournament for money (do college basketball players go to class at all after Valentine's Day?) make it obvious yet again that the industry is for sale. The NCAA rejects the paying of players because doing so would shatter its most precious myth that a primary player at the highest levels of revenue-generating sports is the student-athlete, even though the very best of those players, especially in basketball, leave college for the pros as soon as they're allowed.
By refusing to address the compensation issue for players, the NCAA is effectively condoning the widespread temptation among college players (and more importantly, their families) to accept cash and houses and cars, among other perks, at a time when it appears to the player that everyone in the game at every level -- the NCAA, the school, the coach -- is getting rich. Everyone, that is, except him.
One of the more obvious examples of that moral inconsistency came from Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun. In February 2009 during a budget crisis in the state government, a reporter confronted Calhoun and asked him to comment on his $1.6 million salary, which made him the highest-paid employee in the state. Calhoun was bullying, rude and embarrassing with his response, saying he had no intention of giving any of it back and telling the reporter, "My best advice to you is, Shut up."
"Quite frankly, we bring in $12 million to the university, nothing to do with state funds," Calhoun said that day. "We make $12 million a year for this university. Get some facts and come back and see me. Don't throw out salaries and other things. Get some facts and come back and see me. We turn over $12 million to the University of Connecticut, which is state-run. Next question."
Calhoun's pink-faced defiance revealed the true face behind the mask: Money is his commodity. He quite comfortably allows his role as a revenue producer to justify his existence. He did not mention education, sending young athletes into the world as leaders or giving talented kids a chance to explore a larger world -- all the values college sports are supposed to embody. He makes money, lots of it, for his school. Money was Calhoun's club, and he used it.
In the latter part of this summer, both Alabama coach Nick Saban and Florida coach Urban Meyer addressed the outside predators -- the agents' subagents -- who prey on college players, but they did it without addressing the inside predators: the coaches themselves.
And so the shell game continues. The NCAA metes out punishments that don't punish anyone. The return of Bush's Heisman is an empty gesture, for it does not and cannot erase the long runs, the broken tackles and the memories Bush created while he was on the take and not telling the truth about it. Forcing USC to vacate the victories gained while Bush was there might sound punitive, but it is as illegitimate at USC as it was at the University of Massachusetts when the basketball program under Calipari was forced to vacate its 1996 Final Four appearance because of NCAA violations. The system remains in place and repeats itself, as it did with Calipari and Derrick Rose at Memphis, college basketball's version of the Bush saga. The coach in charge of the renegade program leaves for a more lucrative opportunity, denying any knowledge of wrongdoing while checking his checking account balance. The star player moves on, rich and untouchable, and the NCAA and the universities repeat step one.
The necessity is actual reform of the entire system, either by acknowledging that college sports are essentially a form of outsourcing and treating it as such or by holding coaches accountable for administering and leaving a program and institutions (which are often state-supported) accountable for higher learning.
That requires real will and real action, starting with the NCAA taking the "For Sale" sign down from in front of its games.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.
What did we learn from the denouement of the Reggie Bush scandal? That no one was hurt, that nothing will change and that it's only a matter of time until something similar happens again.