Former USC tailback Reggie Bush on Tuesday became the first athlete in the 75-year history of the Heisman Trophy to forfeit the award, bowing to pressure from detractors in and around college football.
After five years of staunch denials about any wrongdoing, Bush acknowledged in a statement posted on the New Orleans Saints' website that he made "mistakes"—though he didn't specify what they were.
The player said that "persistent media speculation" he called "both painful and distracting" prompted his decision. He also said he hoped to work with organizers of the award to establish an educational program that would "assist student-athletes and their families [to] avoid some of the mistakes that I made."
He added: "In no way should the storm around these allegations reflect in any way on the dignity of this award, nor on any other institutions or individuals."
The Heisman is presented annually to college football's top player. It ranks among the most famous accolades in all of sports. Bush came under pressure to return the famed bronze statue this summer after NCAA found he had received cash and gifts — including free rent for his family — from two would-be agents while at USC.
The finding came after a four-year investigation into USC's athletic program and resulted in the school being hit with severe penalties that could cost it substantial revenue in future tickets sales and donations. In addition, popular head coach Pete Carroll left to take over the NFL's Seattle Seahawks and the athletic director was replaced, leaving a once-proud department scrambling to recover.
USC had already distanced itself from its former star, new university President C.L. "Max" Nikias ordering that a copy of Bush's 2005 award be removed from the athletic department lobby and returned to New York.
Taking office in the immediate aftermath of the NCAA sanctions, Nikias also replaced longtime athletic director Mike Garrett with Pat Haden, a former USC quarterback and Rhodes scholar.
Haden on Tuesday called Bush's gesture "noble" and his decision "thoughtful." He also said he hoped the NCAA would someday allow USC to renew its relationship with Bush.
As for the running back's legacy at USC, Haden said, "Reggie Bush was a fantastic football player. I mean, nobody can deny that, one of the most exciting guys to play here. One of the most fun guys to watch play here. By his own admission today, he made some mistakes.… We've returned our Heisman, he's returned his, and that's about all we can do."
Bush's announcement coincided with a Tuesday afternoon meeting of the Heisman Trust in New York, the eight-member board scheduled to discuss whether to revoke the award.
Heisman voters are instructed that candidates must be in compliance with NCAA rules.
The trust had no comment Tuesday, a Heisman spokesman said. There was no indication of whether the award would be vacated or given to former Texas quarterback Vince Young, who finished second in the 2005 voting.
The allegations against Bush came to light in 2006, but the NCAA's investigation dragged on for several years with Bush refusing to cooperate for most of that time.
Investigators ultimately concluded that he had taken improper benefits from the San Diego sports marketers who hoped to represent him after he turned professional. Bush's family had lived without paying rent in a home owned by one of the marketers.
The marketers filed civil lawsuits against Bush, who eventually settled each of the cases out of court.
The NCAA probe also found wrongdoing by former Trojans basketball player O.J. Mayo and women's tennis player Gabriela Niculescu.
Citing a lack of institutional control by athletic department officials, the NCAA placed USC on probation. Included in a long list of penalties, the football team was banned from playing in bowl games for two seasons and stripped of 30 scholarships over three years.
The Trojans were also forced to vacate their final two victories from the 2004 season — which could jeopardize their national championship — and all 12 of their wins from the 2005 campaign.
USC has appealed some of the penalties.
Reacting to Bush's announcement, Carroll issued a statement through the Seahawks: "It is my hope that this situation serves as a teachable moment to all involved, especially for the young athletes and university and high school administrators of tomorrow."
If nothing else, USC has made significant changes to the way Carroll ran the football program, limiting the crowd of outsiders he used to invite into practices and the locker room.
While his former team struggled with the investigation and subsequent fallout, Bush seemed to escape public backlash until recently, signing endorsement contracts to represent a variety of products including athletic shoes and soft drinks.
But sports marketing experts suggest that his image took a hit with the NCAA sanctions and that, if he was hoping to rehabilitate that image, Tuesday's announcement may have come too late.
"I think that he might have gained a few points by giving it up voluntarily rather than having it taken away, but I don't think that changes the fact it's quite an embarrassment," said George Belch, co-founder of the Sports Business MBA program at San Diego State.
"The Fortune 500 companies that are concerned about their image, I think they'd have to be very careful with him," the professor added.
On the USC campus, at least some students appeared to be sympathetic.
"No matter what happened to him financially or outside the game, he won games for USC and did all he could," said Young Hou, a senior business major from Torrance. "He'll always be one of my favorite 'SC players."
In New Orleans, Bush posted a similarly upbeat thought on twitter.com.
"Now that this is behind me I look forward to the future and winning more awards and championships here in New Orleans. Who Dat!"
Staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.