By now, anyone with a working television or internet connection is aware of the penalties issued by the NCAA against Penn State for the role the university played in covering up the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The list of penalties includes:
• $60 million fine: An amount roughly equivalent to one year of gross revenue from the football program that will be given to an endowment for “programs preventing child abuse and/or assisting the victims of child sexual abuse.”
• 112 vacated wins: The Nittany Lions were stripped of every victory from 1998-2011, dropping head coach Joe Paterno from his status as the winningest coach in major college football history.
• Loss of bowl revenue: Penn State’s estimated Big Ten share of $13 million over four years will be donated to “established charitable organizations in Big Ten communities dedicated to the protection of children.”
• Loss of 20 scholarships per season for four years: Penn State will only be allowed to sign 15 recruits per year through the 2016 season — 10 fewer than most teams — and are limited to 65 total scholarship players through 2017.
• Transfer rules waiver: Current Penn State players can immediately transfer to another school without having to sit out the requisite year.
• Four-year postseason ban: Penn State cannot compete in the Big Ten championship game or any bowl or playoff contest until after 2016.
The tragedy that occurred was horrendous, and the role the university played in concealing the abuse is disturbing. The NCAA, which has been criticized over the years for a lack of institutional muscle when it comes to assigning penalties for breaches of its rules, responded with a substantial show of force in this instance, a force exceeded only by the historic imposition of the Death Penalty against SMU in 1987.
Most people can probably get behind the majority of these penalties, and some have likened the combination of scholarship loss, transfer waivers and loss of four years of bowl eligibility to the imposition of a slow death penalty, but one of these penalties, I cannot support: the vacating of wins.
Last year, the New York Times ran a piece exploring this idea of vacated wins and raised the question as to the effectiveness of such a penalty.
Whether the N.C.A.A.’s now preferred form of discipline is truly effective is a subject of some metaphysical debate.
As Ken Pomeroy, a college sports statistician, noted, University of Massachusetts men’s basketball fans remember the team’s 1996 Final Four appearance as the greatest sports moment in its history, and “they don’t feel any different just because the N.C.A.A. says it doesn’t exist.”
Monte Burke over at Forbes shares my distaste for vacating wins.
But vacating wins is just downright silly. What does it accomplish? The games are over, done, gone for good. Does vacating them wipe them from our consciousness? Will fans suddenly no longer be able to recall the 2005 11-1 team that won the Big Ten and the Orange Bowl?
Baseball has had its share of shenanigans, especially when it has come to PEDs and players who have actually been caught cheating at their game. And yet Major League Baseball lets those records stand. They do not wipe out home runs for individuals and wins for teams.
He goes on to liken the vacating of wins as not treating people like adults, an argument I don’t find particularly compelling, but I think the quote above captures the more salient argument against vacating wins. The fact is that Penn State won the Outback Bowl in 1998 and 2006, Penn State won the Alamo Bowl in 1999 and 2007, Penn State won the Orange Bowl in 2005.
To vacate these wins and all the other 112 wins during that period is merely revisionist history, like the downplaying of Japanese Imperialism in the post WWII era or the Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide. Wikipedia has already been updated to reflect the vacated wins on the Nitany Lions season by season page and on the Joe Paterno page, but fortunately, Wikipedia has specifically highlighted the fact that revisionism has taken place with an asterisk identifying the NCAA’s role in rewriting historical fact.
Furthermore, the only context in which vacating wins might maybe make a little sense is in regard to violations which impacted on the field performance, such as violation of the NCAA recruitment regulations, but as heinous and despicable as the actions were in the current scandal, this is hardly a situation which had a direct performance impact on what the Nittany Lions did between the hashmarks for the past 14 years. The penalty of vacated wins does not make sense in this context.
Even though future versions of the EA Sports NCAA franchise and the “official” records books will identify Eddie Robinson as the winningist coach in NCAA history, the fact remains that a team coached by Joe Paterno scored more points than the opposing team more times than any other team coached by any other coach in the history of the college game: 409.