January 14, 2008

Kevin Roderick, the undisputed blog-maestro of all things Los Angeles, notes that the writer of a soon-to-be-released book on former USC running back Reggie Bush has created a website to shill his product, subtly entitled www.TarnishedHeisman.com (that also happens to be the name of the book). I certainly don't begrudge the writer, Don Yaeger, from merchandizing his wares however he sees fit, but I am confused about his argument. How exactly does a college athlete taking money from a third party "tarnish" his athletic accomplishments?

I mean, let's be serious for a moment. The NCAA regulations concerning payment to student-athletes are not what is known as "malum per se," that is, a law that regulates conduct that is, in and of itself, bad. In everyday life, murder, rape, embezzlement, fraud, are actions that society makes illegal because of a consensus that those actions are always wicked, and any transgression must be punished. In sports, a malum per se action would be something along the lines of taking steroids, or paying an opponent to throw a game, or bribing a ref. Such acts distort the credibility of what occurs on the playing field, and are inherently toxic in the context of athletic competition.

However, it is not inherently bad for an athlete to receive financial compensation for his talent, nor is it considered wrong for a college student to earn an income while in school. Leaving aside the many reasons, from racial exploitation to class, why "amateurism" continues to be the focus of college sports, the only good faith argument that can be made as to why young football players are still not permitted to receive payment in the 21st Century is that it's expensive. Over the past fifty years, the guidelines concerning payments to student-athletes have become gradually relaxed, reflecting the same trends that have marked the Olympic movement since the death of Avery Brundage.

Hence, the NCAA's regulations in this field are what is known as "malum prohibitum," or wrong because it's prohibited. In the real world, what Reggie Bush is accused of doing is similar to speeding, or downloading music off the internet without permission. It makes him no less the best player in college football in 2005 than if he had received a D in Spanish 101, just as Jim Thorpe didn't stop being the Greatest Athlete in the World just because he played semi-pro baseball before the 1912 Olympics.

But for some reason, the media doesn't treat it that way. Instead, we have sportswriters and columnists showing more concern about whether Rick Neuheisel once contacted a recruit on his cellphone while parked outside his home, than whether the players he coached at Colorado and Washington graduated. And we have talented investigative journalists spending months tracking whether some All-American athlete was driving a booster's car, as if that was tantamount to the Watergate break-in or the non-existence of WMD's.

To put it bluntly, nothing that a college athlete receives from a third party in the way of compensation can ever "tarnish" his accomplishments on the field. If it can be shown that Reggie Bush never took a single exam at SC, or that he and Matt Leinart injected roids into each other's butts, Bash Brothers style, or that Pete Carroll massaged the "cream" and the "clear" into his star tailbacks' shoulders before every game, or that Steven Sample paid the Oklahoma Sooners to take a dive before the 2005 Orange Bowl, then we can talk about something being "tarnished."

After Jim Thorpe was stripped of his two gold medals, it took seventy years for the IOC to decide, retroactively, that in fact he did finish first in the pentathlon and decathlon, and return his honors. More to the point, it is likely that in twenty years, full professionalism, or something like it, will be the rule in college sports; that has been the unmistakable trend since the end of World War II. If Reggie Bush is stripped of the Heisman for something that will be perfectly acceptable a few years from now, is the Downtown Athletic Club going to approach Vince Young and tell him that they made a mistake, and that he was really, truly the second best player in the country (and he though he got robbed the first time), and that they're going to have to take away the Heisman they awarded in 2009?

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