Reggie Bush is suing the NCAA for defamation, although it seems more like a proxy battle to eventually recover the 2005 Heisman Trophy he forfeited due to NCAA violations.
The defamation lawsuit, officially announced Wednesday during a news conference at the Los Angeles Coliseum, seems legally hopeless (more on that later). His overall goal of restoring the honor he earned at USC is understandable, though.
It’s just that Bush is fighting the wrong fight, or at least the wrong entity.
Rather than bother with the NCAA, who retroactively vacated his legendary season due to eligibility concerns, he should take the public relations battle to the Heisman Trust. It is that separate and unaffiliated New York-based organization that continues to claim it must adhere to NCAA rulings and thus will not return the Heisman to Bush until the NCAA reinstates him.
But the Heisman Trust doesn't have to wait on the NCAA.
What Bush filed on Wednesday is a lawsuit designed more to gain attention than a verdict. It doesn’t formally ask for the Heisman to be returned.
Instead it takes issue with a 2021 NCAA media statement that implies Bush was involved in a “pay-for-play type arrangement.” Back in 2010, the NCAA did punish Bush for receiving impermissible extra benefits from would-be marketing executives that compromised his amateur status. They weren’t “paying” him to play. They were “paying” in order to sign him when he was drafted into the NFL.
It’s a distinction without much difference, but Bush is absolutely correct.
Bush’s attorneys claim the NCAA statement “substantially and irreparably damaged [Bush’s] reputation.” This seems like quite a reach.
Bush is currently employed in a prime college football broadcasting role with Fox, stars in numerous national advertising campaigns and is, if anything, more popular than ever.
The Bush camp is probably counting on fans — who are overwhelmingly on his side — not diving into the details. Instead of arguing whether Bush was defamed or not, they’ll focus on whether Bush should get his Heisman back.
"I got dreams of coming back in this stadium, and running out of that tunnel with the football team," Bush said Wednesday, high atop the LA Memorial Coliseum. "I got dreams of walking back in here, seeing my jersey, my banner, right down there, next to the rest of the Heisman Trophy winners. But I can’t rightfully do that without my Heisman Trophy."
Bush can preach, but that doesn’t mean the bureaucratic NCAA is going to budge and restore his eligibility, thus giving the Heisman Trust the go-ahead to hand back the trophy.
The better strategy is to skip the middleman (NCAA) and pressure the Heisman Trust directly. It hands out the award — not the NCAA. And it is that group, for no particularly convincing reason, who says it must follow the standards and rulings of the NCAA.
It’s the Heisman Trust that can quickly reverse course and note that due to the changing nature of the NCAA’s amateurism rules — namely the arrival in 2021 of name, image and likeness benefits — it no longer wishes to hold former players to the former standards.
Problem solved, just like that.
The arrival of NIL has been the crux of Bush’s increasingly vocal case on why he should have his Heisman returned. Back when he played, some fledgling marketing agents throwing Bush and his family some so-called “extra benefits” in an effort to secure his future business was a clear and known violation of the rules.
Lots of players through the years were ruled ineligible because of it. Entire teams had entire seasons, even bowl games and Final Fours, officially “vacated” because of it.
However, what the NCAA once believed was deathly wrong is now essentially allowed — current players can hire professional representation and can earn money through endorsements, businesses and marketing deals.
To consider how far (and how far out of the shadows) things have come, USC’s current star and most recent Heisman winner — quarterback Caleb Williams — will be a recurring character in Dr. Pepper’s “Fanville” commercials that will air repeatedly during college football games this season. That doesn’t count additional deals with United Airlines, Fanatics and PlayStation.
There is little doubt that Bush broke the old NCAA statutes. However, if the NCAA’s rules and sensibilities on this topic have evolved — albeit at the bayonet point of court rulings and bipartisan state laws — why shouldn’t the Heisman Trust’s evolve as well?
But for the NCAA to restore Bush’s eligibility and thus bring those magical 2,218 total yards and 18 touchdowns from scrimmage back to life would be to open a Pandora’s Box, with all sorts of potential legal liabilities. Who knows how many coaches, for example, were fired and thus denied contracted pay because of eligibility violations involving players.
To expect the NCAA to open itself up to that is wishful thinking.
The Heisman Trust, however, is more easily swayable. If it cared about what outside entities thought of its past winners, then O.J. Simpson might not still have his trophy.
The thing is, O.J. did win the Heisman. So did Reggie Bush. They were both the best players in their respective seasons.
Bush may have been the one to forfeit his Heisman in 2010, but it's the Heisman Trust that has the power to reinstate him today as the 2005 winner.
That's the tree Reggie Bush needs to be barking up.