One of the classic and inevitable moments of backyard football (the height of my own football career) is “the dog pile”. Somebody fumbles the ball and a few players dive for it. A pile of bodies forms as players fight in earnest. The mass grows as more bodies join the fray. Eventually it becomes ridiculous when someone — usually the wimpiest kid on the field — makes a running long jump and lands squarely on top of the pile just because he can.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) has done something similar in its recent punishments seemingly calculated to smother Penn State and its football program. These come in response to the crimes of Jerry Sandusky, convicted on 45 counts related to sexual abuse, and Joe Paterno and others who allegedly covered up Mr. Sandusky’s criminal behavior.
The penalties consist of the usual mix of stuff, even if unprecedented in its magnitude: a massive fine, a ban from bowl games, penalty-free transfers for Penn State football players (usually athletes must sit out for a year when transferring to another school), scholarship restrictions, and so on.
Among the mess of penalties smothering the Nittany Lions is one that is a bit quirky and annoying, much like the wimpy kid who jumps on the dog pile — knowing full well he will contribute nothing by doing so — simply because he can. The NCAA decided to “vacate” all Penn State victories from 1998 forward. How exactly does it happen? Simple. The NCAA says so and it is so. Or so it thinks.
Since 1998, Penn State football players, coaches, and fans battled for one-hundred-eleven victories. Fans purchased tickets, sat on hard cold benches, endured rain storms, cheered their hearts out, and even prayed to come out victorious. Players pounded each other, made extraordinary plays, and scratched and clawed for points as the game clock wound down its final seconds. Referees called the games as they saw them and consistent with the rules as they were written, sometimes missing the obvious and occasionally calling the non-existent, but usually getting it right.
The NCAA does not allege that Penn State cheated in any of these games or held any sort of unfair advantage. When time expired, everyone who cared knew who won and everyone knew who lost. The game was over and history.
There’s one thing worth noting about history. It might be written and rewritten, and historical records can even be destroyed. But history never actually changes.
The NCAA can impose massive fines, and it does. It can restrict scholarships, and it does. It can prevent schools from participating in bowl games, and it does. It can prevent student athletes from receiving compensation, and it does. But the NCAA cannot change history. If the NCAA chooses not to recognize one-hundred-eleven Penn State victories in its record books, its books are incomplete or inaccurate on at least one-hundred-eleven counts. If commentators fall in line with the NCAA’s wishes and overlook Joe Paterno as the winningest coach in college football, they do so in error.
The new man to hold the “winningest coach” honor, at least according to the NCAA’s wishes, is Bobby Bowden with 377 wins. Despite the NCAA’s wishes, Mr. Bowden recognizes that history does not change. According to ESPN.com, he remarked, “Nobody would want to have a title given to him this way.” He commented further, “Nothing that has transpired today has changed what our teams accomplished over the years one bit.”
Mr. Sandusky is in prison and will be there until he dies. Joe Paterno is dead and his bronze statue removed from Penn State’s campus. The folks at the NCAA want to be relevant. So they punish fans, alumni, and players for the criminal and despicable acts of the imprisoned Mr. Sandusky and the dead Mr. Paterno. The debate over whether the mass of other penalties handed down to Penn State is appropriate or not will be debated until well after sanctions against Penn State have ended. Proper bounds for the NCAA will also command some attention. But one point should be settled quickly. History does not just change simply because the NCAA says so.