Even a Corrupt System (in this case, College Football) Must Play by Its Own Rules

There is nothing particularly interesting or important going on in the world this week, so I thought I might spend a bit of time discussing college sports, specifically big-money top-tier college football.  Why?  Because it has gone bonkers -- far beyond anything that I have written about it before regarding my love-hate relationship with that sport, which is saying something.

Today, I have no desire to discuss again why football presents literal (and I do mean literal) life-or-death questions.  Instead, this column addresses the depressingly frequent situation in which at least moderately intelligent people say things about sports that are absolutely, jaw-droppingly silly.  Examples of this are legion, such as comments about how Coach X has had "a record-setting number of consecutive 9-win seasons" without noting that it is now possible to have a relatively mediocre year and go 9 and 4 (whereas within my lifetime teams once played only a total of 9 or 10 tens in a season), or lauding running backs' 1000-yard seasons without even mentioning the increased number of games.

The argument that caught my eye last week, however, is from a surprising source, in that Rick Reilly is one of the top sports commentators out there.  He became a bit famous beyond sports a few years ago, for example, when he related a story about how Donald Trump shamelessly cheats at golf, which he expanded into a 2019 book: Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump.  Reilly is an engaging raconteur, and I have always found his writing to be not merely informative and interesting but insightful.

To understand where Reilly went wrong about college football requires some context.  Within the last two years, some major powerhouses announced plans to switch conferences.  The first dominoes fell when Texas and Oklahoma announced that they would soon leave the Big 12 to join the Southeastern Conference (SEC).  Later, USC and UCLA announced that they were leaving the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten.  The latter announcement was especially weird, because although the Big Ten had in recent years expanded its upper Midwest footprint slightly west (adding Nebraska) and east (adding Maryland and Rutgers), the Los Angeles-based glamor schools are more than two thousand miles and three time zones away from Ohio State and Michigan.

Even so, the money was simply too enticing, and the Pac-12 faced the reality of either living without its two most famous programs or trying somehow to replace them.  A few weeks ago, however, everything fell apart.  First Colorado, then three more schools (Utah, Arizona, and Arizona State) bolted to the Big 12, followed quickly by the news that Washington and Oregon would join their West Coast counterparts by joining the Big Ten next year.  The Pac-12 is down to a nub of four universities, and somehow Stanford and Cal are finding it difficult to sell themselves to another power conference.  (Oregon State and Washington State seem destined for the American equivalent of relegation.)

We are long past the time when it is even mildly interesting to note that the numbers in the names of the Big Ten and Big 12 are inaccurate (with the conferences now soon to be home to 18 and 16 teams, respectively).  It is, however, interesting and important to discuss what effect this will have on the athletes and their ability to continue to be students while traveling from, say, Westwood (CA) to New Brunswick (NJ) for a volleyball or tennis match.  Some good commentators have written convincingly that this is a race to the bottom, and it will end with the consolidation of what had been semipro feeder conferences into all-but-professional leagues devoid of any excuse to exist other than to make the fans happy -- in the stands and boosters' boxes, on TV, and in the betting parlors.

Most of the sports discussion is all about the excitement of watching even more games (with an expanded college football playoff starting in a year, adding two more brutally punishing games to the end of the season for the most successful teams).  And this is all happening in the new world of "name, image, and likeness" (NIL) money accelerating the corruption of the system.

The front-of-mind mind reaction to NIL for the typical sports talking head is that the players are "finally getting paid," coupled with the open hope that the NCAA will soon be forced to allow universities to pay cash salaries directly to the best players.  Reilly, referring to something that happened in 2005 (which I will explore below), puts it this way: "In those bad old days, colleges could make millions on major talents ... in TV money and alumni donations and ticket sales, while players got zip."

Zip?  Not only do the players receive full-ride scholarships plus room-and-board (worth hundreds of thousands of dollars), along with the adulation of everyone around them, but they are in many ways above the law.  There are still things that need to change (including providing adequate disability insurance coverage).  But if one wants to argue that players should be able to "test the market," the idea that big-time college athletes have spent decades toiling away and getting nothing in return is absolutely false.  What they receive is far from nothing, which is why it is always shocking when smart people like Reilly and even John Oliver blithely assert otherwise.

A related argument goes that the rules against cash payments are simply wrong.  Why?  Because freedom.  As Reilly puts it in an aside about paying children: "You don’t think Macaulay Culkin got paid?"  The idea is that there is something odd, even un-American, about violating the hallowed free market, in which everyone -- including athletes -- should be able to make as much money as they can.

That is nonsense.  Even professional athletes face very strict rules about gambling.  At the college level, there is an ongoing scandal at both Iowa and Iowa State regarding players violating gambling restrictions, including at least one player betting against his own team.  But if other people are free to gamble, why are football players losing their freedom?  The answer is that there is nothing unusual about imposing restrictions on people's otherwise-legal activities in return for the right to participate in a specific activity.

There are reasons that sports leagues worry about gambling, and there are reasons that universities worry about the corrosive effect of pay-to-play replacing even the currently diluted version of the student-athlete model.  One can disagree with all of that and offer arguments about changing some of those rules, but the idea that "other people can do that" is simply not a good argument.

In any event, the false claim that players used to receive nothing merely serves as snide snark on the way to Reilly's main argument, which is that former USC running back Reggie Bush should being given back "his good name."  Reilly begins the piece by recounting a recent day when "I was driving down an L.A. freeway when I saw something that made me pound on my steering wheel and howl, 'Yes! I agree! I completely, 1,000 percent agree!'"  That "something" was a billboard that read simply: "Hey NCAA … Give Reggie Bush Back His Heisman!"

What is that all about, one might ask?  Bush won college football's highest honor in 2005. However,  as Reilly reports, "Bush lost that Heisman — and USC had to give up its 2004 national title and 14 wins from 2004 and 2005 — after news emerged that his family had accepted gifts, including his parents living rent-free in a San Diego-area house, from a couple of sketchy wannabe sports marketers."  So, Bush had been caught violating the then-existing -- and not at all hidden -- rules against receiving outside cash payments, and he had been punished.

Reilly builds to his argument by saying that, "[b]ack then, players who broke the vow of poverty were punished. Today, it’s perfectly fine."  ("Vow of poverty"?  Please.)  But his point is that NIL payments are now legal and widespread, so what Bush did back then was no big deal.  "So, to recap, Reggie Bush is still being punished for something that basically isn’t just acceptable today; it’s essential."  The "still being punished" part is that he continues to be officially Heisman-less, not that he is still serving a long jail sentence or paying restitution on a monthly basis; but I digress.

The point is that Reilly is saying that the rules are different now, so Bush should be judged by today's rules -- which his behavior would not violate -- rather than the bad old rules that Bush did violate.  This is an old problem in law, especially in the criminal context, where people spend years in prison because the system does not allow them to be released or retried even though changes in law and precedent would have changed their life-altering verdicts.  I thus understand the desire to question sentences passed down under old laws, but Bush's situation is simply not one of them.

To be clear, Bush broke the relevant rules in a way that other players with whom he competed did not.  Other than a standard, "Oh, come on, everybody does it!" response, which is both irrelevant and at best unproven, what is the argument?  Bush was paid by sleazy operators, with everyone fully aware that what was happening needed to be kept secret; but, per Reilly, his only sin was getting paid in cash, and everyone is cool with that today.  Give him back his trophy!

So we can change this one thing and be done with it?  That cannot be right, because if today's rules were applied to previous players and teams, the outcomes would have been different.

Now, however, we are in the world of counterfactuals.  What would have happened if Bush had not worked with those bag men to accept money to play for USC?  Maybe he would have gone to one of the many, many other schools that either played by the rules or were offering slightly less than USC's proxies were paying (and were better at hiding it)?  What then?  Bush plays for, say, UCLA, where the quarterback is not the reigning Heisman winner (who thus opened up plays for Bush by keeping defenses honest), leaving Bush as a very good player on what might have been an 8-5 team, with non-Heisman statistics.

Flipping the counterfactual, what would have happened during Bush's career if the NCAA were allowing cash payments to all football players?  Again, not only might Bush have not gone to USC, but everything else would have been different.  His competitors for the Heisman might have chosen different destinations (based on, say, NIL money), where they could have had better seasons.  Or not.

If we are going to go back and change outcomes, I want to represent offensive linemen from the 1970's who were flagged for holding before the league changed to rules to allow blatant holding.  Some of them might now be Hall of Famers.  I want to speak up for kickers who were forced to kick from less favorable angles and on poorly maintained fields.  I want to change the outcomes of games by going back and saying that Player Y engaged in helmet-to-helmet contact when that was not illegal (but should have been, as we now see with the updated rules), so he should have been ejected, and his team probably would have lost.

The point is that everyone was playing by the same rules at the same time.  Or at least they were supposed to.  If I were one of the other players in that era and saw everyone saying, "Well, those rules were dumb, so let's pretend they didn't exist and un-punish exactly one guy, because he was very, very good," I would be pretty upset -- whether I had secretly cheated or not.  Will Reilly start a pool to pay the players what they would been paid under a cash system, or even simply try to prove that Bush would have won under different rules?  No?

So, what to make of the claim that the world should "[g]ive back the Heisman ... and [g]ive back Reggie Bush his good name." Bush cheated. He knew he was cheating. The family whose name he carries helped him cheat.  Players with other last names knew the rules and lived by them.  That today's rules are different does not automatically change how yesterday's violations should be viewed.  "It was a bad rule," even if true, does nothing to change that.