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Stripping Penn State's Wins Doesn't Even Work As Symbolism

The NCAA's fixation with "vacating" wins is a perfect example of the organization's flaws.

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With the massive (and justified) penalties levied against Penn State University by the NCAA this morning — a $60 million fine, a four-year ban on bowl games, and scholarship reductions that essentially turn the Nittany Lions into an FCS team — came one that made no sense. And despite making no sense, it's a strategy that the NCAA turns to constantly: stripping programs of their past wins.

Penn State will vacate 114 wins between the years of 1998-2011, 111 of those belonging to Joe Paterno. In the NCAA's record books, this will knock Paterno from his place as the all-time winningest coach in Division I football down to eighth. The idea is that, by erasing Penn State's accomplishments during those fourteen years, the NCAA will illustrate for other schools an idea they wish to be true but is not: that teams don't succeed on the football field if they're not behaving ethically off of it.

But of course, the NCAA cannot change history. Those wins happened. Players played in those games, coaches coached, fans cheered, national television networks broadcast them to millions of households, people made money, and power was accrued that ultimately allowed the varied abuses of Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier and others.

To believe that you can change history by fiat is one of the most delusional ideas a person can have; apart from the NCAA, the only places where it's common to simply assert that something happened when it didn't are authoritarian regimes. In this case it's not only absurd, it's self-defeating — if you're trying to make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again, it's better to remember those wins, and Joe Paterno's role in them, than to forget. Seeing Paterno's name at the top of the list every time a coach moves up the career wins ladder would be a very effectively unnerving reminder of his mistakes.

What else would we expect, though, from an organization that continues to hold up as its guiding light an idea of amateurism that — even leaving aside its merits in the abstract — was long ago rendered irrelevant by the on-the-ground reality of the role that money plays in college football and basketball? The organization's well-documented hypocrisy is not just galling because it's dishonest — it's also the biggest obstacle to figuring out how to create a more transparent and fair system. Penn State may have gotten what it deserved, but the rest of college sports' problems will persist as long as the NCAA' insists that, just by saying so, it can make itself something other than what it is: a colossal business that pretends to be religion.

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