Former USC star Reggie Bush sues the NCAA for defamation and seeks his Heisman Trophy

Throughout his storied football career, Reggie Bush made one thing clear over and over again: You can’t give the guy an opening.

Fifteen years after the NCAA began investigating him, in July 2021, college sports’ governing body did just that, issuing a statement that alleged Bush had a “pay-for-play type arrangement” while at USC — an assertion that was not a part of its findings in the report that led to debilitating sanctions against the Trojans and Bush all the way back in 2010.

Suddenly, Bush had his opening. Wednesday morning, he burst right through it, returning to his former house of glory at the Coliseum to hold a news conference announcing he had filed a defamation suit against the NCAA.

By his side on the rooftop deck of the Coliseum were his attorneys, Levi McCathern and Ben Crump, the high-profile civil rights lawyer who notably represented George Floyd’s family. After an impassioned 12-minute speech by Crump with the downtown L.A. skyline glimmering in the sun behind him, Bush approached the lectern to speak.

“I’ve got dreams of coming back in this stadium and running out of that tunnel with the football team. I’ve got dreams of walking back in here and seeing my jersey and my banner right down there next to the rest of the Heisman Trophy winners,” Bush said, pointing below toward the peristyle end zone. “But I can’t rightfully do that without my Heisman Trophy.”

Crump, with sweat beading on his forehead, reminded Bush that USC had in fact asked him several times since the 10-year disassociation between school and star running back ended in 2020 to lead the team from the tunnel. But this appears to be a matter of principle for Bush. He’s not going to act as if everything is OK and in the past until it actually is.

“I can’t wait to do it, but I can’t do it without my Heisman Trophy, without that banner in that end zone,” Bush reaffirmed.

Bush, at 38, looks in primo physical shape, as if he could do it all again if the Trojans just handed him a helmet, pads and cleats. But only he knows the toll all of this has taken on the inside. It has never stopped eating away at him, even after he moved on to the NFL, won a Super Bowl, dated Kim Kardashian, started a family of his own here in L.A. and became a national college football analyst for Fox in recent years.

On July 1, 2021, the day that state legislation forced the NCAA’s hand in allowing name, image and likeness payments to college athletes, Bush put out a public statement demanding he get his Heisman Trophy back. In response, the NCAA made its statement that is now the linchpin of this case, saying, “Although college athletes can now receive benefits from their names, images and likenesses through activities like endorsements and appearances, NCAA rules still do not permit pay-for-play type arrangements.”

“The NCAA has made a statement about me,” Bush said Wednesday, “accusing me of engaging in a ‘pay-for-play arrangement,’ which is 100% not true. Not only is it not true, but there’s no evidence to even support that claim. It wasn’t even part of the initial NCAA investigation. So this is a new accusation, as far as I’m concerned, that was picked up by all of you. All the media outlets picked it up as if this were the reason why I’m not getting my Heisman Trophy back and why I’m not being reinstated. And that’s not true. That’s what this lawsuit is about. It’s about truth, getting the facts out, and holding the NCAA accountable.”

The phrase “pay-for-play” typically refers to athletes who would not play for a school unless they were compensated, suggesting the benefits were a factor in the recruiting process. It differs from an agent providing gifts or payment in exchange for a potential share of future professional earnings.

Bush’s family has been accused of receiving rent-free housing and other benefits from family friend Lloyd Lake and would-be sports marketing representative Michael Michaels in San Diego. Neither represents USC interests.

The lawsuit and other documents shared by Bush’s attorneys — including a 39-page defense of Bush sent to the NCAA Committee on Infractions — cite courts’ rulings in former USC running backs coach Todd McNair’s defamation case against the NCAA. The McNair case, which was settled in 2018, suggested that the NCAA investigators who interviewed Lake were unprofessional and that the testimony would not hold up in a court of law.

But, most important to Bush’s defamation case, the documents state that the NCAA never had proof that Bush was compensated by USC or a representative of the school, regardless of what may have occurred with Lake and Michaels.

“One misconception is that he was paid by USC to play football,” McCathern said Wednesday. “Some schools did that. USC did not and Reggie never got a dime from USC. A second popular misconception is that Reggie was paid by a sponsor, alumni, someone in the school, that didn’t happen. Reggie was never paid for play.

“The violations they found, which were based on shoddy evidence and terrible work by the NCAA, were very marginal violations at best. Things like loaning Reggie money to fix his car, allowing Reggie to change clothes before a Doak Walker ceremony in a hotel room, and their investigation was based on the testimony of a man whose testimony is dubious at best.”

McCathern said that he would like to see a resolution of Bush’s situation — either through the lawsuit or their petition for reconsideration to the NCAA Committee on Infractions — by the end of this football season.

A billboard demanding the return of Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy on White Oak and Ventura Blvd in Encino on April 26, 2023.

Who is behind all those billboards demanding return of Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy?
April 26, 2023

“The people watching this at home are going to see how wrong this is,” McCathern said. “The NCAA doesn’t want to go against all popular opinion. If we took a poll, 99 people out of 100 want Reggie to have his Heisman back. There’s yellow billboards Reggie never asked for, that have been all over L.A. I’m hopeful the NCAA will bow to public opinion and do the right thing.”

Crump agreed that a groundswell of public support for Bush could turn the tide.

“The district court has told the NCAA they are wrong,” Crump bellowed from the top of the Coliseum. “The California Appellate Court has told the NCAA they are wrong. The United States Supreme Court has told the NCAA they are wrong. And the court of public opinion has told the NCAA they are wrong. How many more courts have to tell the NCAA they are wrong before they finally restore Reggie Bush with his collegiate titles and records and his Heisman Trophy? How much longer? How many more years?”

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