Time for the Heisman to make clear what it truly represents

Friday December 13th, 2013

The Heisman, arguably the most prestigious award in sports, has been shrouded in controversy of late.
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NEW YORK -- There's a distinct aura to the Heisman Trophy, something mystical that's evolved over the generations as Davey O'Brien begat Roger Staubach, Archie Griffin and Bo Jackson. No one has ever fully explained why the Heisman resonates so much more than other award. It's peerless among MVP trophies, having appropriately stiff-armed its way to the forefront of sports lore.

On Saturday night, the Heisman Trust will give out the trophy for the 79th time. Once again, the presentation of the most prestigious individual award in sports will be shrouded in awkwardness.

Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston will win the trophy in a runaway. That seems to be a given at this point. The only drama will be whether ESPN elects to mention Winston's recent legal situation. On Dec. 5, Willie Meggs, the state attorney for Florida's second judicial circuit, announced that Winston would not be charged with a crime in a sexual assault case dating back to December 2012. "We did not feel that we had sufficient evidence to go forward and bring the case to trial," Meggs said.

That ruling all but assured a victory for Winston, and it again puts the Heisman in the precarious position of dealing with a controversial winner. Three of the past four recipients -- Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and presumably Winston -- have been hounded by various off-field questions. On Friday, Patricia Carroll, the attorney of Winston's accuser, held a press conference in which she called for an independent Attorney General's Office investigation of the case and the Tallahassee Police Department.

So with another uncomfortable Heisman ceremony looming, it's time that the Heisman Trust provided more clarity about exactly what it wants voters to look for in a candidate. The ballot asks voters to select "the most outstanding college football player in the United States." From a purely X's-and-O's perspective in 2013, that was Winston without a doubt. But some voters likely left him off their ballots as a result of the investigation anyway. In its mission statement, the Heisman Trust says the award honors, "The outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity." So which is it?

It's hard to read this 86-page report released by the Tallahassee police and come away feeling that Winston is a beacon of integrity. But the question Heisman voters want answered is this: Should we care? Should we care if Newton had academic and legal issues at Florida, or that his dad shopped him like a prized thoroughbred during his recruitment? Should we care that Manziel got arrested in June 2012 and gave the police a phony driver's license?

In recent years, voters have been forced to decipher how much they are obligated to weigh integrity when casting their ballots. (Full disclosure: I have voted in the past two Heisman races.) Is integrity a fancy buzzword for some polished mission statement? Or is it central to the ideals of the Heisman?

Only the Heisman Trust can tell us that. And it doesn't say much of anything, as a spokesman declined comment and the organization only tends to speak when absolutely necessary. Even then, it typically doesn't say much.

The history of the Heisman is fraught with legal complications. Consider that O.J. Simpson sold his Heisman for $255,000 in 1999, but Reggie Bush returned his trophy under pressure after the he was at the center of NCAA violations at USC. Paul Hornung got suspended from the NFL for gambling issues, Billy Cannon took part in a massive counterfeit scheme and Charles White has battled cocaine addiction. That's just the short list.

Sure, Bush's vacated season led to him giving his Heisman back. But did he really show less integrity than other former recipients? Perhaps only the NCAA's kangaroo court can strip the trophy from a winner?

Take the case of 1972 winner Johnny Rodgers, for example. Rodgers was found guilty of a felony during his freshman year at Nebraska. He stole $91.50 from a Derby gas station in Lincoln in '70, and there are conflicting reports whether he was armed with a gun. He was pardoned for the crime last month.

History keeps repeating itself, and that's why it's imperative for the Heisman Trust to make clear what qualifies a player to win the trophy. The difference today from the era in which Rodgers won is that the stakes are exponentially higher. Buck Harvey, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, abstained from voting for this year because he's seen the "immense financial incentive" schools like Texas A&M (Manziel in 2012) and Baylor (Robert Griffin III in '11) have benefitted from because of their recent Heisman winners. In college football, the only trophy programs covet more than the Heisman is the crystal football awarded to the BCS champion. A Heisman winner reverberates for generations in much the same way a national champion does.

"Both Baylor and A&M have recently talked about the additional revenues/marketing the Heisman gave their schools and communities," Harvey wrote in an email to SI.com, "and here was a case with the police procedures being questioned and a DAs press conference timed to the vote."

In a blog post explaining his decision, Harvey pithily explained: "A Heisman vote for someone else suggests Winston is guilty. A vote for him suggests the events that have transpired are acceptable."

To realize how much the Heisman Trophy has changed since its inception in 1935, consider that two of the first three winners went to Yale, and the other to the University Of Chicago. Since then, the Heisman has evolved into the most prestigious individual award in sports, and college football into a multi-billion dollar industry. Part of the Heisman mystique stems from its rich tradition of winners and their sense of camaraderie. The distinction supposedly means something more than simply starring between the sidelines.

Until the Heisman decides exactly what it wants to represent, however, it's starting to feel more and more like just another trophy.

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