Amateur Hour at USC

This is a blog post for my Political Theory class.

I’ve been a USC fan for the last four years. I obviously now care about Michigan primarily but since I was a freshman in high school I have been rooting for the Trojans from sunny LA. My brother started as a freshman at USC in 2010 and with his first football season came all the classic traditions of USC football fandom: the drum major riding in on a horse and stabbing the ground with a sword, the fight song playing incessantly, and the large empty, reserved space of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

But one tradition was noticeably absent: bowl games. Or at least eligibility. During my brother’s orientation at USC over the summer, USC’s bowl eligibility, their 2004 BCS Championship trophy, and Reggie Bush’s 2005 Heisman Trophy were taken away and many USC fans were left in the dust, dreading the coming meaningless two years. Aside from creating a truly awful way to start one’s experience at USC, the 2010 crisis forced a renewal of the discussion over rules in the activity and the institution of the team.

For those that don’t know, the USC football team was investigated in 2010 by the NCAA: one player, Heisman winner Reggie Bush, accepted donations from agents, thereby revoking his status as an amateur. Bush gave back his Heisman trophy to the Heisman Trust, the team was deemed ineligible to play in bowl games in 2010 and 2011, and the last two wins of 2004 and all wins in 2005 were vacated. The USC basketball team was also punished in the same year for the same problem: O.J. Mayo had accepted gifts from agents as well, before he had played a game for USC.

The college team is an interesting concept: while the team itself as an institution may survive indefinitely, each player’s time with the team is ephemeral at best. That is, once a player graduates, they are not a part of the team anymore, but their legacy on the team may have a tangible impact. This is what makes the USC debate so interesting. If Reggie Bush was drafted into the NFL in 2006, why was the USC football team four years later punished for his actions?

We at Michigan are fortunate enough to be schooled in the concept of “the team.” We listen to Bo Schembechler quotes at football games and even wear quotes on our t-shirts. “The team, the team, the team” is something we’re all familiar with. But while the team is fantastic when it works together, it’s more noticeable when it falls apart. In USC’s case, when one player four years before commits a wrong, the team as a whole gets punished.

In sports, as in politics, there are rules that are assumed that are perhaps not the most rational. These rules exist on the playing field and off. For Bush and Mayo, accepting gifts is totally rational: it is receiving money (presumably for play) instead of turning it down. As Johann Huizinga noted in his essay Homo Ludens, in the magic circle of play there exists rituals, irrational rules that govern life in the circle and thus the play that exists therein. In the context of the NCAA, amateurism is one of those rituals: players may not be compensated for their work as college athletes because the NCAA (legitimately or financial reasons) follows the abstraction of amateurism. Bush and Mayo were rational, accepted gifts, broke the rituals, and were thus punished.

Amateurism has had its fair share of missteps in the world of college sports recently, notably the case of O’Bannon v. NCAA in which Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA for using his likeness without compensation for profit after he had graduated. The NCAA claimed that O’Bannon was an amateur and compensating him for his work would be a violation of their value of amateurism in college sports. And while that issue may deal with O’Bannon’s likeness, not his work, consider the case of Northwestern football players who recently decided to unionize because they are compensated through scholarships. It seems as though the concept of amateurism is failing. For now, balance has been restored at USC and their football season is off to a great start (if you ignore their embarrassing loss against Boston College). One thing’s for sure, after their bowl game eligibility was restored, they have been clinging to that opportunity like a cat and a slice of pizza.
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