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Jacobsen: Erasing wins misses the point (Sept. 3)

Vicky Jacobsen | Monday, September 3, 2012

Maybe it’s the history major in me, but one of my favorite parts of following sports is getting to see history as it happens.

Sometimes these earth-shattering events are completely unpredictable, like each of the three perfect games we’ve seen in the majors this summer. Sometimes they’re pleasant surprises, like America’s newest sweetheart Gabby Douglas winning gold in the Olympic all-around competition. And some were so predictable that the congratulatory commercials were shot months early – for an example, see “Phelps, Michael,” or simply Google “all-time Olympic medal-winner record.”

But while we were watching legends in the making this summer, the specters of “vacated wins” and “stripped titles” came for Penn State and Lance Armstrong, proving some governing bodies are all too eager to whitewash historical results when it fits their purposes.

We still quibble over individual cases, but most have come to accept stripping away wins from victors who now appear “tainted,” for reasons varying from amateurism violations (USC, Ohio State) to classroom cheating (Florida State) to cheating in the training room (Armstrong and pretty much every other cyclist for the past 20 years).

But the entire concept still feels wrong to me, even though I agree that teams shouldn’t get away with that sort of behavior. Maybe it’s because I internalized too much of “1984,” but I will always hate the idea we can go back and “change” the official outcome of an event that has already happened. Someone won, someone lost. Maybe the game wasn’t won “fair and square.” What in life is?

I would feel differently if I thought the threat of a losing a season or career’s worth of games kept people from breaking rules. But college kids are still trading their gear for tattoos, and baseball players are still doing steroids. Of course their behavior is dishonest, but isn’t “vacating” a win also somewhat misleading? Isn’t it dishonest to downplay Armstrong’s return from cancer and his joy when he triumphed again and again (against a field where you’d be hard-pressed to find one clean cyclist)? We all remember the pictures of Armstrong powering up a mountain, the agony etched on his face. Does that not count?

And then there’s the inherent silliness in pretending the victor didn’t win the competition. For those keeping track at home, 14 of the last 17 Tour de France winners have lost their titles for alleged PED use. Dozens of other competitors have been banned for PEDs. Hint: If you’re still getting updates on whom “won” an event that occurred in 2004, it’s time to stop caring.

But here’s the real reason we shouldn’t toss the win-loss record when a program gets to smelling bad: It just reinforces our confusion of success with honor and integrity. It’d be nice if the most accomplished men and women in history were also the kindest and wisest, but that’s not true in politics or art or business, and it’s certainly not true in sports.

In Greek theater, many dramas centered on great men undone by their “tragic flaw,” which was usually associated with the feature that made them great in the first place. The audience wasn’t asked to ignore the impressive feats of their fallen hero – those were as much a part of him as his failures.

This brings us to Joe Paterno, a man who was well on his way to the summit of Mount Olympus when the world discovered he cared so much about the pristine reputation of the Penn State program he built that he chose to protect his assistant coach instead of reporting allegations of child abuse.

We could have used this scandal to teach our children that winning is great, but the person at the top of the wins list isn’t always the best man or woman on the list. Personally, I think we should remember Paterno as a man who was great at coaching football teams and building the reputation of his university, yet still failed what must have been the greatest moral test of his life.

But I suppose the NCAA doesn’t think they have an asterisk that can convey all that, so they simply swept away his wins instead.

Contact Vicky Jacobsen at vjacobse@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.