USC Loses the Championship!

What will happen if Reggie Bush is declared ineligible?

The federal government may have new, taped evidence that former USC football star Reggie Bush accepted cash and gifts while he was still a student. If so, he could be declared ineligible retroactively, in which case USC might have to forfeit its 2004 national championship as well as all its victories from the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Does it hurt a school to lose a game after the fact?

Only indirectly. The National Collegiate Athletics Association can impose several types of penalties when a college team breaks its rules. For example, a program may lose the right to grant athletic scholarships or play in the postseason. When it comes to light that a school used ineligible players for games that have already been played, the punishment often includes an order to “vacate” the results. That means the team must treat those games as if they never happened—they’re stricken from the record. (In rare cases, the NCAA may demand a “forfeit,” in which case the contested games are marked down as losses.)

The school’s athletic department must revise all of its official publications to reflect this change, which can be costly. If the team had to vacate a league or conference championship, it would have to pull down commemorative banners and throw out any other associated publicity materials. Recruiters and fund-raisers would have to eliminate all mention of the retroactively erased season from their printed materials.

A university might also be asked to give back some of the money it earned from the vacated games. A football team might have to turn over its television revenue from any bowl games it played in. Basketball teams that make it to the NCAA tournament are generally required to forfeit 90 percent of their earnings. When the University of Michigan got caught using ineligible players in the 1990s, the program was forced to take down its championship banners and give up revenue from three tournament appearances. The program did, however, get to keep the millions of dollars it made selling Michigan merchandise during the period.

The decision to alter the historical record can lead to confusing discrepancies. In general, the school that gets penalized must erase all of the affected games from its overall tally of wins and losses. (Ineligible players have their individual records cleared as well; teammates get to keep their stats.) But the team’s opponents are under no obligation to update their records. This sort of fuzzy bookkeeping became a source of controversy as Texas Tech’s Bob Knight approached the all-time record for Division I wins by a men’s basketball coach.

Bonus Explainer: Will Reggie Bush have to give up his Heisman Trophy? The trustees who oversee the award haven’t decided yet—up to now, no winner has ever been asked to return one. The trophy itself would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to a collector. (The government seized O.J. Simpson’s award from 1968 and auctioned it off for $230,000.) But Bush won’t be able to get that money no matter what happens: As of the late 1990s, all winners have had to sign away their right to sell the Heisman.

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