Reggie Bush: The product of a flawed college football system

Photo via Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Imagine you wake up with missed calls from colleges around the country offering you a football scholarship. You’re seventeen, and after long practices, extra sprints, and constant training, you’ve finally become the best. Despite coming from a low-income household with a single mom, universities are calling with stronger educations than you ever could’ve imagined. What’s left is conquering college football to make the NFL.

This process is a reality for many high school athletes like former University of Southern California running back Reggie Bush. Once he chose USC, Bush became one of the most talented college football players ever. He could do it all: return punts and kickoffs, run over anyone, and score touchdowns. With 1740 rushing yards and 478 receiving yards, Bush became the Heisman Trophy winner in 2005 as a junior.

But he also became the target of agents hoping to sign him for the big money in the NFL. As Bush gained fame, an ex-convict friend of his stepfather, Lloyd Lake, decided that he wanted to become a sports agent. Lake gave Bush’s stepfather a home and Bush a used car to guarantee Bush’s business when he reached the NFL.

Bush, however, failed to realize that this interaction with Lake was problematic. When he realized Lake wouldn’t be a good choice of an agent, he refused to sign with Lake, causing Lake to turn him in for receiving illegal gifts.

USC then got charged by the NCAA with “lack of institutional control” for failing either to be aware of Bush’s gifts or to stop Bush’s interactions with Lake. The school received one of the worst set of sanctions in college football history that destroyed the football team for six years. Reggie Bush, among talk of its removal, returned his Heisman. There is no winner of the 2005 trophy.

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Bush holding Heisman before it was taken away (Photo via Frank Franklin II/AP Images)

There’s no denying Bush’s accountability, but how much control did he have over the situation?

Bush’s scholarship, from the NCAA’s perspective, was a way to broaden the reach of higher education and to open up opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible. Scholarships are meant to prepare football players for the NFL but also give them the education that prepares them for a successful life outside of football.

Universities, however, are able to cheat football players out of a quality education in exchange for the profit of a star athlete. Thus, many argue that college athletes should be receiving some sort of monetary compensation for their contribution to the university. Universities and the NCAA are making millions of dollars off of the skills that young, often uneducated or underprivileged children bring to the field.

Young athletes are often given “perks” that make it easier to cut corners on their education; football players aren’t even required to graduate. Because of how much wealth and fame an exciting player like Reggie Bush generates, universities, coaches, and athletic directors are more successful when the players spend as much time as possible on the field.

For players, this means receiving more detailed information about what will appear on exams, taking the bare minimum of class requirements, and taking the easiest classes the school has to offer. The players are set up with football as a primary concern and education as a small hoop to jump through when aiming for the NFL. Without quality education, athletes are more vulnerable to immoral actions, and there’s more pressure to make it in the NFL.

Setting up players for the NFL would be great if most of them had a shot in the first place.

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NFL running back careers on average are only 3.3 years and often cut short by injury (photo via Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

Less than 2% of college football players play in the NFL, and of that 2%, the average career is only five years. Five years in the NFL is, in most cases, an insufficient income to support those players and their families for the rest of their lives. Desperately needing money that they might not be able to get, college football players are especially vulnerable to offers by sports agents that promise them security.

Another factor in the Bush case is his age. At twenty-years-old, he was expected to be making huge moral decisions regarding the wealth of himself and his family while surrounded by adults who should’ve protected him. Lloyd Lake knew that he was giving illegal gifts and trapping Bush in a no-win situation. Lake preyed on Bush’s financial need in order to propel himself into a new career.

“Lack of institutional control” is without a doubt applicable to an institution suppressing rule-breaking actions in the name of maintaining profit. Garrett and Carroll should’ve been the moral guides for Bush, helping him not only to develop into a great football player but also into a great student and person. They should’ve protected him from a semi-fraudulent agent instead of allowing him to be manipulated for their own personal gain.

The truth is that Garrett and Carroll had nothing to lose in the situation. In all likeliness, Bush would be gone before he was caught. Thus, those two would get the glory of training one of the best college football players in history and developing one of the most formidable college football teams ever. Plus, the NCAA sanctions came down on the school and Bush. That means that the faculty, students, and other players, who had no way to prevent Bush from receiving the money, were punished.

While the USC family spent seven years dealing with a tarnished name and a compromised athletic program, Carroll was signing a $33 million contract and bringing his NFL team to a Super Bowl title. Carroll left USC just before the news of Bush’s illegal interactions came out, leaving many wondering whether or not that was the reason he left.

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Pete Carroll at USC (Photo via Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

How does the NCAA justify punishing a university and one of its players?

Especially when the people at fault go on to be virtually unaffected. Carroll became more famous and more wealthy, in part, because he exploited Reggie Bush.

The NCAA should be doing their part in protecting players by incentivizing athletic directors and coaches to guide their players rather than take advantage of them.

What if, instead of Bush and an innocent student body, the man responsible was punished for violating NCAA policies?

If the NCAA set sanctions on coaches and athletic directors that turned a blind eye to wrongdoings, men such as Pete Carroll would have no reason to ignore the payment of their athletes because they would directly face the consequences.

Would the Seattle Seahawks have hired Carroll if he came with a postseason ban, fines, and a limit on skilled players?

This system drives college football players into the arms of greedy agents only to leave the victimized athletes and innocent students and fans dealing with its repercussions. So, who’s to blame? Protection from this system is the reason the NCAA, college coaches, and university athletic directors exist in the first place: to protect morality and students instead of profit and fame.

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