Stiff Arm

by Bert Bartlett

Reggie Bush is still eligible to run with a stiff arm, but will have less pedal to put to the medal after forfeiting his Heisman Trophy. Lots of moral ground has been covered in the media on this issue, from the high kind to low subterfuge. One school of thought says he should not be singled out in an NCAA that has been historically rife with breaking of rules by athletes, though in no small part due to many of the petty, impractical ones on their books. Another one reminds us, simply, that other wrongs do not make a right, and that the issue of whether the trophy should be returned is not even controversial. Along the way, it’s impossible to forget the street cred of one Saint, who upon hearing the news this summer, quipped “will ‘SC be returning the jersey (sale) money?”

And if the case were compared solely to another past USC recipient of the trophy, O.J. Simpson, Bush backers would have a strong case indeed, wondering why the convicted felon who was judged, in civil court, to be responsible for the death of two human beings, still had his to polish, under relatively little pressure to return it, until it was sold in 1999 to help settle his civil case. Simpson is behind bars for subsequent crimes associated with  violently threatening people who had come in possession of some of his sports memorabilia. God only knows what crimes The Juice would have been squeezed for if it included the Heisman.  

Anyhow, the semi-cynical contention here, and the bigger issue even, is that the Heisman Trust, the award’s ruling body, has pulled off the ultimate publicity stunt – on somebody else’s mistakes, not along the lines of a conspiracy (the award has 870 voters), but in a collective subconscious, in an attempt to reverse it’s long flagging fortunes. New USC Athletic Director Pat Haden is on the Trust and initiated this process by returning the school’s copy of the trophy (one goes to the player as well as the school), a conflict of interests if it were looked at along legal lines.

The former sponsor of the trophy, The Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan, went bankrupt in 2002 (largely because of 9/11).  The Yale Club assumed it for a few years, and it has been shuffled around, most recently to the Sports Museum of America, which closed last year. This year’s presentation will be at the Marriot Marquis. Nielsen ratings for the award show on ESPN are not readily available, but are assumed to not be indicative of a big hit.

Yet the award’s loss in luster as “the most outstanding” player in college football is not due to it changing physical plants. Over the years, the voting body has been accused of being flawed, as in unevenly weighted relative to the national sections the panel represents, and regionally biased. In 1970, Notre Dame quarterback Joe Theismann was advised to change the pronunciation of his last name to rhyme with the award in a public relations blitz to win it, though he finished second. In the mid-seventies, an average talent, running back Archie Griffin of Ohio St. won the award not only once, but twice, which reeked of Buckeye athletic department types schmoozing over steaks and martinis with influential voters in New York, or backroom politics. In 1997, possible “reverse” racism was rumored to be in play, as in egged on by a liberal northeastern media, when Michigan’s Charles Woodson beat out Peyton Manning of Tennessee, though in retrospect the winner probably had the better year, and the loser the better career. And most lamentably, no interior lineman on either side of the ball has ever won the award, almost always quarterbacks or running backs, defaming the voting panel and making it look much more like cheerleading types than knowledgeable journalists.

Other player awards, like the Walter Camp and Maxwell, have honed in on the Heisman’s spotlight, and crowded its style, it no longer having a firm a grip as the ultimate player award in college ball. 2005’s edition will remain vacated. Runner-up Vince Young of Texas didn’t even want it.

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