As promised and with great flourish, USC officials last week swept Reggie Bush's disgraced Heisman Trophy from the stately foyer of Heritage Hall. On this occasion the university's famed marching band was not called upon to play a dirge, nor was the squatty, stiff-armed statuette carried out by six Trojan students wearing number 5 football jerseys with "619" eye-black patches stuck to their faces, as if to mourn a legacy fallen deeply into shame.
This seems like a missed opportunity because it would have been a sweet photo op, capturing the moment when sport formally completed the transition into its Age of Revisionism.
The new era must be at hand because the old model, in which history and record keeping are held as reliable instruments for measuring greatness (or just plain success), is hopelessly out of date. Case in point: As SI went to press, Alex Rodriguez was one round-tripper away from his 600th career home run, the youngest to reach that mark. At one time this milestone might have triggered a weepy celebration, invoking the names of mighty sluggers who previously reached this statistical mountaintop. But instead it just kicks off a round of dispiriting debate in which everybody tries to imagine A-Rod's long-ball total had he not used performance-enhancing drugs. The historic dinger itself is meaningless because it's probably only Clean Homer number 358 (just a guess). As for the guys who preceded him past 600? There are six, and two are named Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa.
It's all part of a new paradigm, in which you thumb through the record books with a marker in hand, circle some items as genuine and draw lines through others as clearly tainted. At USC they're actually doing this; the next edition of the Trojans' football media guide will contain at least 100 asterisks and italicized notations, qualifying the performances of the Bush era.
Think of this as a sort of an extreme fantasy game, in which you, the fan, decide what is real and what is not. Play along: During Bush's career at USC the Trojans shared the national championship in 2003, won it outright in '04 and just missed a three-peat in '05, the year that Bush, the most exciting player in the land, won his Heisman. But Bush later was found to have been living on money provided by agents from December 2004 until the end of his college career, which is against NCAA rules and renders Bush ineligible, after the fact.
But the public employs a different standard. The public saw Bush cut back across the entire width of the field and leave half a dozen Fresno State defenders flailing at L.A. Coliseum air in the November game that sealed his legacy. These images are not easily expunged. The Heisman Trust hasn't yet asked for its trophy back so that it can be sent off to runner-up Vince Young. Would that be the right thing to do? You decide.
Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times, but subsequently former teammates such as Frankie Andreu and Floyd Landis as well as past champion Greg LeMond have accused Armstrong of using all manner of PEDs. Yet here's what Landis said on Nightline last week: "Look, if [Armstrong] didn't win the Tour, someone else that was doped would have won the Tour ... in every single one of those Tours." Does that mean Lance (who has vehemently denied these allegations) gets the circle or the cross out?
The lifeblood of track and field is statistical credibility, yet entire sections of the record book induce laugh-out-loud disbelief. Just last week, message board commenters on the running website letsrun.com were debating whether Shannon Rowbury's time of 8:31.38 for 3,000 meters should be considered the "true'' American record because current record holder Mary Slaney received a doping suspension more than a decade after setting her record.
Imagine the possibilities. What if we autopsy some video and show conclusively that Terry Bradshaw's pass nudged the turf before Franco Harris immaculately received it? What if we learn that the Giants were, in fact, stealing signs in the '51 NL playoffs against the Dodgers? Wait—we already did learn that. Circle or cross out?
After its removal from the Heritage Hall foyer, Bush's Heisman sat in storage, awaiting delivery of a proper container for its return to New York City. Across the country—at Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina—college compliance officers scrambled to answer allegations of football players' involvement with agents, charges not dissimilar to the ones leveled at Bush. So don't cap the Sharpie. In this new world, the games are never over. Even when they're over.