Reggie Bush's restored Heisman a natural progression in new college sports world

Stephen A. calls Reggie Bush's Heisman Trophy return 'long overdue' (1:19)

Stephen A. Smith expresses his approval as former USC running back Reggie Bush has his 2005 Heisman Trophy reinstated. (1:19)

Reggie Bush is getting his Heisman Trophy back.

That sentence has felt inevitable for nearly three years now, since June 30, 2021. That's when the NCAA's name, image and likeness era began -- and also the day that Bush himself, who had remained relatively quiet on the subject for more than a decade, began openly lobbying to have his 2005 award reinstated by the Heisman Trust.

Now it has. And there was much rejoicing.

First, a recap of Bush's Heisman saga:

In the early 2000s, Reggie Bush was the OG high school internet viral sensation. YouTube was filled to the brim with grainy home video clips of a Barry Sanders reincarnation out of San Diego's Helix High School. Then he became the flashiest star on college football's most Hollywood of teams, the Pete Carroll-led USC machine that defined the BCS era. From 2001-09, the Trojans earned nearly 100 wins, a pair of national titles and three Heismans. But in 2010, the program was stripped of nearly two years of victories, including the 2004 BCS title, and handed a list of sanctions that crippled the program for years.

Bush was also barred from any formal association with the school for a decade. In reaction to it all, the caretakers for most of the major awards he'd won in '05 started demanding he return their trophies. Amid noise that the Heisman Trust would do the same, Bush preemptively gave it back.

Why was this rack of hammers dropped on USC and No. 5? Because of an NCAA investigation that uncovered improper gifts to Bush, including the use of a San Diego home where his family lived, owned by an agent named Lloyd Lake who planned to represent the running back once he turned pro. During the legal sparring between Bush and Lake, which continues to this day, the number that received the headlines -- what the agent claimed Bush owed him -- was just under $300,000. While USC had no formal ties to Lake, it was ultimately determined that they should have devoted more resources to tracking any potential pitfalls when it came to monitoring an athlete as famous as Bush had already become. As stated by then-chair of the NCAA Infractions Committee, Miami AD Paul Dee: "High-profile players merit high-profile enforcement."

Before Bush finally started pushing for his Heisman over the past three years, he seemed resigned to his pigskin purgatory, confessing in an early 2021 chat with me that, "Not a day goes by that I don't feel guilty for what happened to USC football, all because of something that is tied to me and my family."

But when viewed through today's prism, all that is tied to Bush from back in the day reads like no big deal. What was against the rules in 2005 is business as usual in 2024. A college student dealing with an agent who provides them with nice stuff in exchange for the promise of a long and lucrative professional relationship? These days that's no red flag. It's the modus operandi. Heck, in 2024, $300,000 wouldn't be enough for USC to get a five-star running back for a couple of weeks, let alone an entire season.

Since the summer of 2021, as athletes, boosters, collectives and even state legislatures and coaches have continuously run through the NIL era like Bush following former USC fullback David Kirtman into the gap, the initial scandalous shock of what he and USC were punished for has been reduced to a shrug.

Over recent weeks, those shrugs have also come with a pair of very loud amplifiers. In early March, Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, who said on Shannon Sharpe's Club Shay Shay podcast that his father tried to get $3 million for Johnny to stay at Texas A&M for two more years after his 2012 award, announced on social media: "After careful thought and consideration I will be humbly removing myself from the Heisman trophy ceremony until @ReggieBush gets his trophy back. Doesn't sit right with my morals and values that he can't be on that stage with us every year. Reggie IS the Heisman trophy. Do the RIGHT thing @NCAA the ball is in your court." The Heisman Trust responded that they would gladly bring Bush back should he be reinstated by the NCAA, but the NCAA declined.

Then, on April 10, after the death of O.J. Simpson, that same Heisman Trust posted a social media tribute mourning the loss of USC's second Heisman-winning running back, who was never stripped of his trophy. An overwhelming percentage of the more than 3,000 replies to the post mentioned Reggie Bush.

So, as Bush celebrates and USC celebrates and, on some level, so does common sense, it also feels fair to ask another question.

In the search for Heisman peace, are we opening a room full of college sports Pandora's boxes? Are the courts about to become packed with filings from those who were rightfully punished for breaking rules of their time, seeking retroactive corrections and erasures based on what the norms are now?

Are the Fab Five and Chris Webber on line 2 wanting their two Final Four banners pulled out of storage, sent there because Webber received money from a booster? Is the 1990 Syracuse lacrosse team going to roll up in cars bought with suspicious loan papers and demand a national championship trophy with an actual NCAA shield on it to replace the logo-less one they had made to replace the one taken away from them for, yes, a suspicious car loan? Does Georgia Tech send a $312 check -- the amount of clothing that wide receiver Demaryius Thomas allegedly received from a former Yellow Jackets player -- as payment for the restoring of its 2009 ACC Championship Game victory?

A decade ago, I received a speeding ticket for driving 66 in a 55 mph zone. Last month I noticed that the same stretch of highway is now a 70 mph zone. So, can I go back and get my fine, court fees and insurance premium payments refunded?

Not all of that will happen. But certainly, someone will try. Multiple someones. Even though the NCAA has not and will not budge on USC's punishment, those folks and their attorneys can now point to Bush and his welcoming back to the "Heisman family" as a pretty solid argument. Especially USC, should they choose to go down that road.

However, those who fight back to deny any would-be reputation retrofitters still have a pretty nice little argument themselves. The same one they've always had.

High-profile players merit -- check that -- merited high-profile enforcement.