Reggie Bush’s tainted Heisman

Reggie Bush’s gifts as a running back helped him win the Heisman Trophy in 2005. But there was one tackler Bush couldn’t shake: the egregious rules violation the NCAA says he committed as a Trojan. According to the association’s investigators, sports marketers plied Bush with cash and gifts, as well as picking up the tab for tens of thousands of dollars worth of housing for him and his family.

In addition to saddling the USC football program with a whopping penalty, that transgression almost certainly would have led the Heisman Trust board to reclaim Bush’s trophy. So it’s hardly noble that Bush chose to surrender his prize Tuesday — the day the board was meeting to discuss his case — sparing himself the indignity of having it confiscated. Nor does Bush deserve any praise for his statement of faux contrition, in which he admitted no wrongdoing and hinted that he’d simply been ignorant about the rules.

The problem for Bush and the many other star athletes who run afoul of the authorities isn’t that they’ve unwittingly crossed some obscure line. It’s that marquee athletes in big-time college sports too often have a sense of entitlement that years of coddling and attention have instilled — a sense that’s reinforced by high-profile professional athletes who play by their own rules.

Given the money they generate — most of USC’s $82-million athletic budget comes from its football program — it’s understandable that the stars of major college programs come to feel as if they deserve more compensation than the free education and exposure they’re receiving. That’s a powerfully corrupting force, and it will inevitably prove irresistible to some young athletes. Nor does it help that infractions usually are discovered after the cheaters are gone, leaving others to pay the penalty.

What schools can and should do is make it abundantly clear to athletes, coaches and athletic directors that sports take a back seat to studies. That message often gets lost on campuses where players live in separate dorms and where university presidents have no control over athletic budgets. To its credit, USC has changed in significant ways since Bush left for the pros. The university has a new president and athletic director who’ve promised a culture of compliance, as well as new coaches for the football and men’s basketball teams. We hope they’ll be able to instill the Trojans with enough sense and perspective to avoid the mistakes that cost Bush his Heisman.