There is little need to recap the events that led up to this, including the firing of the University's President, Vice-President, Athletic Director and legendary football coach Joe Paterno (who died shortly after from lung cancer) and the precipitating events, which were the decades of repeated cases of sexual abuse committed by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky (recently convicted and facing centuries in prison). The full details of the penalties are rather striking: Penn State will lose 20 scholarships over the next four years. During that time they will be on probation, which means that they cannot play in bowl games (even totally meaningless ones) during that time. In addition the Big 10 conference (of which PSU was the 11th member) will withhold bowl revenue during the four years (estimated to be about $13 million). The university is also required to contribute $60 million (estimated to be one year's normal football revenue) to charities dealing with prevention of child sexual abuse (the Big 10 money will go to that cause as well). It will be a small victory if the scandals at Penn State can help prevent future cases of child abuse and exploitation.
But what is getting the most attention today is the other part of the sanctions: specifically, every game Penn State won from the time Paterno, et al first ignored Sandusky's actions until Paterno's death will have the outcome retroactively overturned. Penn State will "vacate" all of their victories between 1998-2011.
While some people are mostly hot and bothered because this means that Paterno will no longer officially be the winningest college football coach (welcome back on top, Eddie Robinson!), I am disturbed by something else: the idea of revisionist history.
Ever since I read 1984 back in 1983 (I wanted to be prepared), I have been struck by the idea of "doublethink". Why people ranging from the leadership of totalitarian Communist states to the leadership of an intercollegiate athletic oversight organization can't understand that there is no such thing as a "memory hole" is beyond me. Because here is the thing: saying something is true ("We have always been at war with Eastasia"; "Penn State was winless for 15 years") doesn't make it true.
The NCAA seems to use this punishment often. Whether the sport is basketball, football, or even less popular activities such as volleyball, this penalty has been used to show the ultimate repudiation of a coach's actions (or inactions) in the case of impermissible activities (illegal or otherwise). And in some cases, it has been used to remove an award, as happened in 2010 to 2005 Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush. Bush had violated some NCAA rules and so he was retroactively denied the award he justifiably won for being the outstanding college football player of the year.
The problem with this is that everyone remembers the truth. We KNOW that Penn State won those games, just like we know who won the Heisman. And it is not like the teams that lost to Penn State will suddenly feel vindicated for their bad Saturday afternoons. Heck, Vince Young (runner up in the 2005 Heisman votes) is well regarded as one of the dumbest football players ever, and even he knows what's what.
As a history teacher, this really concerns me. I spend a lot of time teaching students to research using old newspapers and magazines. As time has moved on, I have had to incorporate teaching how to assess other primary sources, such as web pages. There are countless (as in, the number is too high to count) sources that refer to results of games, records, and other events that the NCAA would now have us believe never happened, or that the result was the opposite. And there is no Ministry of Truth to expunge our records, and thus our memories. How will people of the future reconcile the "new" record books with the "real" records of events?
I am not the first person to write about this, of course. The following are just a few other examples:
"The Theory and Practice of Vacating Games" tries to explain the rationale behind this punishment. The key quote is "The Division I Manual allows for the result of a game to be changed after the fact."
"If NCAA Violator's Victories Are Vacated, Did They Really Happen?" in which the writer (from the Bradenton, Florida Herald) notes somewhat alarmingly that "The NCAA is on a “vacate” rampage, and it has put a stranglehold on America." He also raises an interesting point: "You wake up and the wins are vacated. It creates another dilemma; does that mean your bookie gives you 48 hours to make good on what you owe him?"
In "Vacating Wins: An Empty Punishment" the writer notes that in many cases people and institutions ignore the punishment. Referring to the University of Massachusetts basketball program once led by John Calipari (who takes a lot of vacations) he observes: "Because of [Marcus] Camby’s “dealings” with an agent during his time in Amherst, Mass., the NCAA vacated UMass’ men’s basketball 1996 Final Four appearance. They also asked the school to remove the banner that commemorated the event, but UMass declined. If you go to the Mullins Center today, you will see a banner in honor of the 1996 Final Four run. This banner serves as a constant reminder of the ineffectual nature of the NCAA’s enforcement of its own rules."
The New York Times weighed in on this topic a year ago in their article "NCAA Penalties Erase Records, Not Memories". They mention USC's response to the Reggie Bush scandal in a way that sounds like they are looking for a memory hole: "Beyond that, all references at U.S.C. to Bush had to be removed. The university returned its copy of his Heisman Trophy, took down his jersey from display and even changed the wallpaper that featured Bush and other Trojans. “We’re not trying to erase history,” Tessalone said. “We’re trying to notate history. It’s appropriate. And it’s confusing. We had to vacate our appearance in the B.C.S. title game. In essence, we never lost to Texas.”
And then this morning, Forbes opined "On The Absurdity of Vacating Penn State's Wins". Their author complained that "The NCAA doesn’t like to treat anyone like an adult. Yes, Joe Paterno turned out to be a really bad person. But he won more games than any college coach in history. That’s a fact.Barry Bonds holds both the all-time and single season home run records in baseball. That’s a fact.We might not like either fact. But we should also be treated as mature and adult enough to be able to discern on our own the difference between sports heroes and villains."
Sigh. It is enough to make me want to take a vacation.