Yesterday afternoon former USC running back and 2005 Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush took the unprecedented step of forfeiting the award for the best college football player of the season and returning the trophy to the Heisman Trust. I can still picture some of his spell-binding runs during that captivating year that culminated in the classic USC-Texas national championship game in the Rose Bowl. Reggie Bush defined college football that year and walked away with the Heisman Trophy in a landslide vote. Five years later, after several years of investigation into inappropriate benefits he received from would-be agents (and after USC itself acknowledged various wrongdoings and cleaned house), he posted the following statement at his official site ReggieBush.com (I’ve underlined some significant words):
To all my fans: One of the greatest honors of my life was winning the Heisman Trophy in 2005. For me, it was a dream come true. But I know that the Heisman is not mine alone. Far from it. I know that my victory was made possible by the discipline and hard work of my teammates, the steady guidance of my coaches, the inspiration of the fans, and the unconditional love of my family and friends. And I know that any young man fortunate enough to win the Heisman enters into a family of sorts. Each individual carries the legacy of the award and each one is entrusted with its good name. It is for these reasons that I have made the difficult decision to forfeit my title as Heisman winner of 2005. The persistent media speculation regarding allegations dating back to my years at USC has been both painful and distracting. In no way should the storm around these allegations reflect in any way on the dignity of this award, nor on any other institutions or individuals. Nor should it distract from outstanding performances and hard-earned achievements either in the past, present or future. For the rest of my days, I will continue to strive to demonstrate through my actions and words that I was deserving of the confidence placed in me by the Heisman Trophy Trust. I would like to begin in this effort by turning a negative situation into a positive one by working with the Trustees to establish an educational program which will assist student-athletes and their families avoid some of the mistakes that I made. I am determined to view this event as an opportunity to help others and to advance the values and mission of the Heisman Trophy Trust. I will forever appreciate the honor bestowed upon me as a winner of the Heisman. While this decision is heart-breaking, I find solace in knowing that the award was made possible by the support and love of so many. Those are gifts that can never be taken away.
I am very moved by this young man’s decision to make such a public and costly acknowledgement. His 2005 season was historic, his performance was remarkable, and I can only imagine how precious the Heisman award must be to those who have received it. When he says that “this decision is heart-breaking,” we should believe him, and we should sense the sorrow that God has designed to accompany all our iniquities.
At the same time, his statement is striking for its ambiguities, euphemisms, and contradictions. He is choosing to “forfeit” his 2005 Heisman award, but his decision is at least partially motivated by the “speculation” and “allegations” that have been fomenting in the media for the past several years. He acknowledges “the mistakes that I made,” but he boldly declares that “For the rest of my days, I will continue to strive to demonstrate through my actions and words that I was deserving of the confidence placed in me by the Heisman Trophy Trust.” So which is it?
Some may object that it’s unfair for me to exegete Bush’s words. But I would respond that this a carefully crafted statement published on an official website, and it’s fair to read it with similar care. Others may point out that pending legal investigations may make it prudent to nuance these types of public statements so as to protect the due process of law. Still others may want to turn the spotlight on the NCAA and its unwillingness to remunerate its student athletes for their central role in the lucrative business of major intercollegiate athletics. There may be some who want to highlight all the other players, coaches, agents, and institutions who have violated rules but haven’t been caught, or who’ve been caught but have never been pursued and chastised as Reggie Bush has been.
Certainly each of these discussions is relevant in certain ways, but none of these concerns mitigate the nature of true confession. Wrong has been done, and wrong is being acknowledged (at least to some extent). But sadly, we’re getting used to these kinds of ambiguous, euphemistic, and contradictory confessions. For the past several years we’ve been bombarded with similar public statements paraded in front of us by politicians, athletes, entertainers, pastors, and public figures of all stripes. We’re used to unapologetic apologies, unadmitting admissions, and kind-of confessions.
Yet the problem really isn’t Reggie Bush, or even the times in which we live. He (and I) are only the most recent examples of humanity’s self-justifying ways. Clever, dodgy responses to sin reach all the way back to the garden where we responded to our first sin by passing the buck as far down the line as it could be passed.
When self-protection, self-righteousness, and self-justification underlie our confession, we tend towards ambiguity, euphemisms, and contradictions. We do everything we can to avoid full, complete, unmistakable admission of our guilt. But when confession is made while staring straight into the holiness of God and retreating to the cross in anticipation of free grace, abundant mercy, and full forgiveness, we find the honesty and the humility to confess freely, fully, and even embarrassingly.
I am grateful that a successful, prominent athlete like Reggie Bush has chosen to acknowledge some form of wrongdoing and to accept the significant consequences that accompany it. Yet I hope that the watching Christian will consider how deceptive, distorted, and incomplete our confessions can be when we attempt to preserve our own righteousness and reputations in the process.
So may the confessions of God’s people be full, pure, constant, and sincere, and may we find our righteousness not in subtle caveats and clever words and crafted apologies, but in the grace of Christ alone.
Update: On September 16, two days after Bush relinquished the Heisman Trophy, he added a couple more figure-eights to the knot by declaring that his return of the trophy was not an admission of guilt. So now we have “mistakes” that warranted the unprecedented forfeiture of the award, but no guilt involved. This will not be the end of the story, for time and truth go hand in hand.