Real story is flawed system, not Bush

September 17, 2006|By RICK MAESE

In the nation's capital this weekend, they're wiping their collective brow and breathing a huge sigh of relief. The latest Bush scandal isn't expected to hurt the president in the polls.

Of course, that's because it's a different Bush making headlines. Reggie Bush - no relation to G-Dub that I'm able to discern - reportedly has put his college in hot water. Yahoo.com reported last week that while Bush was playing at Southern California, he and his family had houses, cars, cash, limo rides and visits to fancy hotels. The gifts and payments from sports agents topped six figures, according to the report.

None of this is surprising, of course. For starters, Bush was a political science major, so you figure he learned how to stick out an open palm in his first semester. And secondly, we're talking about college athletics, as broken an institution as you can find today.

We should be happy the details surrounding Bush and his profitable college days are coming out. As long as the NCAA's investigation is as thorough as Yahoo's, Bush will lose his Heisman Trophy, USC could lose its national title and a great period for Trojans football will be wiped from the record books. These achievements shouldn't be lost for naught.

It'd be great if the focus moved off Bush and off USC and onto the system that not only allows such "cheating" to take place, but also unintentionally encourages it. We put the word "cheating" in quote marks because it's not clear who cheated and who was cheated.

Bush's alleged transgressions are just a little chest cold. You have to follow the roots to the core to see how bad the cancer really is.

If last week's report proves true, Bush broke some rules. He knew these rules and he knew the consequences, so whatever punishment might be coming will be deserved. But melting down a few trophies will not even begin to address the hypocrisy in the world of big-dollar college sports.

So you start with a general question, one far too broad for NCAA investigators to ever bother with: Who was wronged?

Was it USC? A school that cashed a lot of alumni checks, received a lot of exposure and ultimately profited off Bush while in return giving him a couple years of a college education that he may never use or need.

Was it the integrity of the game? Bush's alleged indiscretions had zero effect on the outcome of any contests. His performance wasn't affected, and on the field he competed fairly and within the rules of the sport.

Was it his coach? According to Yahoo's investigation, it sure sounds like Pete Carroll turned a blind eye when agents visited the USC locker room. After two years with Bush in his backfield, Carroll signed a contract extension last December that pays him $3 million a year.

Was it Bush? He did what people in all walks of life do: He discovered something he loved and allegedly found a way to get paid doing it. He didn't break laws, didn't hurt anyone.

No, the only thing cheated was the system, this antiquated house of cards that cashes big checks every year off the hard work of talented young athletes who don't see a dime. It's a billion-dollar industry in which the labor costs are always zero. Malaysian sweatshops look at the NCAA with envy.

In this country, a teenager can have a singing career, can work construction, can join the Army, but because of a cartel agreement between the NCAA and the NFL, he has to give away his services to the NCAA for two years before he can make any money. Does that make any sense?

Free labor is the foundation of college football. A talented 18-year-old has no choice but to be a part of the system and watch everyone from his coach to his school to Lee Corso get paid off his hard work.

I hope Bush stops stammering and starts answering questions. It's not fair that his former teammates might lose something special because of what Bush might have done. But if the talented running back sits in front of microphones and explains that all he wanted was a better life for his family, where is the shame in that?

And that is my biggest problem with college sports. Coaches visit poor neighborhoods, lure teenagers to their campus, and get all they can out of the kid before giving him permission to finally seek a better life for himself and his family.

The way Bush embraced the city and people of New Orleans these past few months shows you what kind of person he is. Bush isn't running around looking for rules and laws to break. It would appear that he has a genuine interest in taking care of people.

But that's not the NCAA's interest. Hasn't been in a long time. Years ago, it was easy to hide behind the credo that an education is payment enough for athletes. The world has changed, though, and college sports evolved into big business.

It's time the changes started to trickle down. I don't see Reggie Bush as a victim or a cheater. But it'd be nice if he became a catalyst. rick.maese@baltsun.com

Points after -- Rick Maese

O's reading -- Last week, ESPN.com printed a 2,000-word article that showed the rest of the country just how far the Orioles have fallen in the past decade. The same day, Press Box, the sports weekly that has been a nice addition to the city's news racks, used 3,500 words to illustrate why the team has struggled. In a Q&A with the team owner, Peter Angelos touches on a lot of topics, but one answer is particularly memorable. Asked why other small-market teams, such as the Minnesota Twins, Florida Marlins and Oakland Athletics, have found success recently, Angelos said, "The only answer I can give you is better luck, as well as more astute general manager performance."

Or maybe ... -- In related news, there's a protest scheduled for this week in which fans will suggest that luck isn't the problem; the owner is. A few thousand fans will walk out of Thursday's game against the Detroit Tigers, their way of symbolically telling the world that Baltimore is ready for new ownership.

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