Commentary

The games can't be unplayed

Originally Published: June 10, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

In America these days, no game is over. No season is finished. No career is complete.

The NCAA announced Thursday that Reggie Bush couldn't have been more guilty of NCAA violations during his spare-no-superlative career at USC. The finding could lead to the BCS' taking back the 2004 BCS Championship won by the Trojans. The finding also could lead to Bush's losing his 2005 Heisman Trophy.

That is up to the Heisman Trophy Trust, an eight-person committee in charge of the most famous individual prize in American sports. The committee will decide what to do about the 25-pound bronze doorstop it gave the Bush that same year.

"If and when [the NCAA] issues a decision, we will review the underlying facts and possibly do our own investigation," the group's president, William S. Dockery, told ESPN's Joe Schad last week.

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush with Heisman Trophy
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonLet's not pretend that Reggie Bush did not have a Heisman-worthy season.

We all want the correct result. The Innocence Project has exonerated 254 people -- 17 on death row -- by using DNA evidence. That is a matter of life and death. Giving Armando Galarraga his perfect game is not.

Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig understood that you can't unplay a game. Galarraga deserved a perfect game. As a consolation prize, he received a gift, the opportunity to display his character to the world.

The BCS may decide to unplay the Trojans' 2004 season. The BCS passed a rule in 2007 that allows it to force a champion found guilty of NCAA violations to "vacate."

It's a punishment that fits the crime like a $79 suit. What, exactly, does it achieve? The NCAA makes the schools give back their Final Four proceeds. That leaves a mark. But the games can't be unplayed.

The line of reasoning for stripping Bush of his Heisman is that the voting rules dictate that a player must be eligible to play according to NCAA bylaws. As of Thursday, the NCAA has decided that Bush wasn't eligible. And if we can impeach and convict a president, which undoes the most important election in the nation, we can toss a Heisman winner.

Even if a president is forced out -- and no president has ever been impeached and convicted -- the laws he signed are not "vacated." They remain in effect. They happened, and no one can pretend they didn't.

Baseball discussed whether to ignore Barry Bonds' home runs. You can't. Once you pull that thread, the statistical history of the games in which Bonds played unravels.

Neither Bonds nor Mark McGwire may get into the Baseball Hall of Fame without buying a ticket. That is a fair punishment. It doesn't pretend what they achieved didn't happen. But the Hall of Fame voters refuse to honor them.

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
Jim R. Bounds/US PresswireGo ahead and give Bush an asterisk. But don't try to take away his accomplishments.

The College Football Hall of Fame may decide not to honor Bush. There's a long list of outstanding players whom the Hall has yet to tap. Linebackers Lawrence Taylor of North Carolina and Brian Bosworth of Oklahoma, defensive back Deion Sanders of Florida State, and tailback Eric Dickerson of SMU all have the playing credentials to be voted into the Hall. None of them is a member. Election is a privilege, not a right.

Dockery also told Schad that the trustees would consider Bush's post-college charity work during his career in New Orleans. That work is admirable. And presumably, if the Trust looks at how Bush has lived after his Heisman career, it will look at how O.J. Simpson has lived. As of today, Simpson remains the winner of the 1968 Heisman.

And what do you do with a Billy Cannon, the 1959 Heisman winner from LSU? Cannon served a sentence in federal prison for counterfeiting. After his release, he became a prison dentist, a good and honorable deed if ever there was one. So would the Trust take away his trophy, only to give it back to him once he redeemed himself?

Pull one thread and see what happens.

Bush may have to live with a black mark next to his name. He may not get into the Hall of Fame soon, if ever. They say the fame of a Heisman guarantees that the trophy will be in the first paragraph of any winner's obituary, no matter how long ago he won it. You can bet that when Bush dies, his NCAA troubles will be right alongside the Heisman.

Vacating a national championship or a Heisman Trophy is a well-meaning gesture. It's also hollow. Give him an asterisk. Say he cheated. But let's not pretend that Bush didn't have one of the greatest seasons in the history of college football. He did, and we all saw it.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com