They Didn’t Win That
July 26, 2012 7 Comments
I am as aghast as anyone at the crimes apparently enabled due to the power of the Penn St. football program, but the punishment handed down to ‘vacate’ their victories going back to some point in time struck me as creepy and Orwellian. Apparently I am not as alone in that view as I might have guessed.
This also came up with the baseball steroids scandal; I recall some folks floating the idea of ‘striking’ Barry Bonds’s and Mark McGwires’ and Sammy Sosa’s (and on and on? Palmeiro? Brady Anderson?) home run totals from the record books. I didn’t like this idea any better and found it Orwellian then.
All of these sporting events either occurred and had winners or they did not. The on-field events either occurred or they did not. The purpose of historical sports statistics is to record what happened, not what should have happened according to someone’s morality. A win is a win, not a canonization or a stamp of approval. Most grownups understand this, I think.
Yet the change-history approach to punishment seems to be on the rise. I don’t think there were serious proposals to whitewash sports statistics and records for wrongdoers 50 years ago. Even during the Roger Maris/Babe Ruth controversy, all that Ford Frick did was have an asterisk put next to his home run total – not strike it from history altogether.
But now, airbrushing seems to be many peoples’ first idea.
I gather the argument is: ‘We need to punish these people in a way that will deter others. Having these wins and records by their name is a huge motivator, so removing them is the maximal tool available.’ I think this is completely wrong. Even under the standard narrative that the Sandusky affair happened because Penn St. as an institution was corrupted by devotion to its football program, ultimately it was money that was the corrupting factor, not the ‘wins’ per se; the wins are a means to the money, but not the end in itself (that is, if you agree that they were as corrupt as their detractors say). If you want to suggest that a football program was corrupted, fine, but you have a hard time telling that story without money being involved.
Thus fines are very appropriate, including punitive fines perhaps, as a way to punish Penn St. and other programs. Remove the financial incentive. But ‘vacating’ wins as well is utterly beside the point.
I suspect the history-rewriting approach to punishment was cooked up by and makes sense to people who are steeped in academics: after all, it mistakes the CV used to get a reward (i.e. salary) for the reward itself. And it is only easy to confuse the two if you are part of a culture that worships the CV. To such people, editing line-items out of a person’s CV is the worst possible punishment they can imagine. (It’s probably quite the power trip, as well.) But ultimately it is a misguided and foolish approach to punishment, and we shouldn’t welcome or encourage it.