On Monday the National Collegiate Athletic Association made a remarkable – and disturbing – decision. As one of the sanctions against Pennsylvania State University in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, it determined that all of Penn State’s football victories from 1998 to 2011 were to be “vacated.” Whoosh! As a result Joe Paterno no longer holds the major-college coaching record for career wins. Someone else now has that honor.
George Orwell would be amused.
In his magnificent dystopian novel “1984,” Orwell understood well the dangers of “history clerks.” Those given authority to write history can change the past. Those sweat-and-mud victories of the Nittany Lions – more points on the scoreboard – no longer exist. The winners are now the losers.
One might wonder whether the NCAA’s rush to judgment, a rush that ignored its own procedures of examining each case through the sanctions committee, was truly necessary. One also might question a set of sanctions whose human victims were not involved in the crimes. Let us put aside these niceties, however. Surely Penn State the institution deserves sanctions for the deplorable actions of authorities. Sometimes organizations are treated as people.
The more significant question is whether rewriting history is the proper answer. While this is not the first time that game outcomes have been vacated, changing 14 seasons of football history is a unique and disquieting response. We learn bad things about people all the time, but should we change our history? Should we, like Orwell’s totalitarian Oceania, have a Ministry of Truth that has the authority to scrub the past? Should our newspapers have to change their back files?
And how far should we go? Should we review Babe Ruth’s records? Or O.J. Simpson’s? Should a disgraced senator have her votes vacated? Perhaps we should claim that Sen. Joe McCarthy actually lost his elections. Or give victory to Sen. John Edwards’ opponent?
Some years ago my school, Northwestern University, had a small scandal in which a star football player pleaded guilty to committing perjury in a trial that involved betting on the school’s games. Surely it was a bad thing, and one that deserved condemnation. Our athletic director suggested that the player’s records be erased from the school’s record books.
I was teaching a course on scandals at the time, and the class and I wrote to our university president arguing that erasure was not the answer. Added information was. We were gratified that our president wisely agreed, and our history was not blemished.
It is understandable that an organization would want its official history to reflect its hopes and desires. Our histories must properly reflect what happened at the time, however, and not in our imaginations. Those young men at Penn State deserve the recognition for their efforts, as does Paterno, who died in January, as a stellar football strategist.
We have learned during the past decades that societies are quite able to remember painful moments with sensitivity. This is evident in the memorials to the victims of Nazism throughout Germany and in our memorials to slavery or internment. The memorial to the shooting victims at Kent State is a recognition in stone and grass that horror can be recalled on campus.
Social institutions such as the NCAA have an absolute right and a moral obligation to respond forcefully to crimes and infractions that occur in areas of their responsibility. The NCAA properly recognized that Penn State should be sanctioned, but it should not create a fantasized history. Men in suits should not undo what boys in uniforms have achieved.
While the shame of honoring flawed people in a record book is understandable, covering up what happened is never the solution. Building a false history is the wrong way to recall the past. True, detailed histories always work better.
Gary Alan Fine is a professor of sociology at Northwestern University. He wrote this for The New York Times.