Educate me, sports fans

Because this is the Internet, and thus one is required to stipulate things that shouldn’t need stipulating lest people infer that you are History’s Greatest Monster, I’ll start out with what should be obvious — Jerry Sandusky is a horrible predator, and Joe Paterno was his disgraceful enabler.  After the run-up to the trial, the trial itself, and the release of the Freeh report, it beggars credulity that anyone could possibly believe otherwise about either of them.

Now the NCAA has handed down its own punishment to Penn State, about the majority of which I have no comment.  I’m no sports fan, and have no way of gauging the justness of the decision.  But one thing struck me as decidedly odd:

Emmert also stripped Penn State of its wins between 1998 and 2011, meaning that former coach Joe Paterno is no longer major college football’s all-time winningest coach. A total of 111 have been erased from Paterno’s previous win total of 409.


Did his team score more points than the other team or didn’t it?  If his team scored more points, how does one call that anything other than a win?  The man who coached the team may have been a moral vacuum tube, but how does that change the score?  Am I wrong to find this aspect of the punishment downright Orwellian?

[Attention any potential comment trolls — this does not mean I am making any excuses for the raping of children or the covering up of same!  I am glad the Paterno legacy has been reduced to a shambles, and think Penn State’s football program deserves a world of hurt for its role in the raping of children.  Please tell me that’s clear enough to avoid any confusion.]

Events transpired in a certain way.  By doing so, they are described using a set of commonly-understood terms.  This punishment now renders the outcome of the games some wholly new concept, which must be plucked from the air.  Unless the predatory or complicit misdeeds of the coaching staff somehow directly affected the final score, how does it make sense to say Penn State didn’t win?

Can someone explain this to me?


Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. This is what the world of football considers a “punishment.” It isn’t. It’s a joke.

    • Further to Sam’s succinct and spot-on point, what makes it especially joke-like is the inconsistent way in which such “punishments” are imposed, often based upon the political winds prevailing at any given time.

      See also performance-enhancing substances.

    • Can you clarify how you mean that? Which aspect of the punishment? The part I question in particular, or some other element?

      • Penn State loses 20 scholarships a year for 4 years, which makes it difficult for them to field a strongly competitive football team. So the “punishment” is that they’ll become a mid-tier Big 10 team for half a decade, instead of a top-tier one. That’s where the real joke is.

        • Actually I think it’s less than that 20-per. I’m seeing 40 scholarships total.

          All things being equal, I wish they’d ramped up the lost scholarships and post-season rather than vacating the wins.

        • The only time the NCAA has leveled what it calls “the death penalty,” it did so when players were getting paid. In effect, it has said today that while it takes child-abuse seriously enough to punish its occurrence (by pretending as though 13 seasons of football never took place), it doesn’t take it so seriously as it does players getting paid. In its hierarchy of problems, 18-year-olds with cash trump 9-year-olds getting raped.

          However, some football fans do consider today’s actions to be “punishments” because OH MY GAWD FOOTBALL WON’T BE AS GOOD FOR A FEW YEARS. It is a horrible situation made ludicrous by the NCAA’s bloviation.

          • It’s partially a matter of jurisdiction. Not necessarily a matter of which is worse. It’s a matter of which is more central to the NCAA’s mission. What happened to Brittany Benefield was a criminal act (well, many criminal acts) (allegedly) perpetrated by several UAB football players. But it didn’t have an effect on the game itself. Arguably, it had to do with student athlete integrity, but PSU didn’t directly.

            I am open to the fact that institutional corruption ought to be more central to the NCAA’s agenda, but that it isn’t is not necessarily a reflection of child-rape not being as bad as pay-for-play.

            As far as the Death Penalty goes, during Miami’s recent troubles, it was said a few times that the Death Penalty has functionally been abolished and will not be used again regardless of the degree of infraction.

            For my own part, I would rather have seen the process play itself out. If that meant the Death Penalty, fine. If it meant something less than they got, that’s fine, too.

            Except please, no more vacating wins. Especially when the games themselves were not affected by the transgressions.

  2. I am working on my post now. It should be up very shortly.

    To answer your question (since I don’t spend too much time on it) a vacated win is essentially the denial of history that you are guessing. The record books read like this. Losses still count as losses, but wins are removed.

    The rationale is that it usually involves a player that shouldn’t have been playing with the idea being that they won by cheating. It’s really a stretch in this case, since we’re dealing with an entirely different set of issues. The rationale this time is that we really, really don’t want Joe Paterno to be the winningest coach in college football history.

    I’ve written previously on how stupid I think the concept of vacating wins is.

  3. Russel,

    It’s a common sanction. Sure, he won those games on the field, but does he or the university get to take credit for them? Nope. It’s like stripping Alberto Contador of his Tour de France title. He’s not the official winner. Occasionally in auto racing a guy crosses the finish line first, but is assessed a penalty–sometimes because they find equipment violations, or sometimes because he passed under the yellow so they dock him a lap. Whichever, it means he didn’t win the race. (In fact, just yesterday, Helio Castroneves won the Indy car race in Edmonton, two years after crossing the line first but not getting the victory because he illegally blocked a car trying to pass him.)

    In the case of Paterno, he’s no longer the winningest coach in college football, bar none. He’s only 12 on the list. Penn State does not get to claim 2 Big Ten titles and 6 bowl game wins in the last decade, on their website, in their brochures, in their sports hall, or in recruiting.

    Wayne State University recently revoked a former student’s Ph.D., because of plagiarism. Did she earn a Ph.D. there? No, she didn’t. She only thought so at the time.

    • In the case of Paterno, he’s no longer the winningest coach in college football, bar none. He’s only 12 on the list. Penn State does not get to claim 2 Big Ten titles and 6 bowl game wins in the last decade, on their website, in their brochures, in their sports hall, or in recruiting.

      That’s why they have asterisks.

      • Exactly, Burt, but that’s why this is so delicious. This way, anyone who wants to claim Paterno is really the winningest coach, they have to provide the asterisk.

    • James, I appreciate the clarification.

      My only quibble is that in most of your examples, the malfeasance in some way contributed to an improper win. I don’t see how that carries into the situation at hand. In this situation there is no plausible link between the crimes committed and the results of the games in question.

      • It is possible that, if Sandusky remained a coach after allegations surfaced, there is some logic to vacating THOSE wins, since he should not have been available to aid the team had PSU done what it was supposed to. That would not vacate all the wins, only those between 1998 and whenever he left the team; I don’t remember the specific timeline offhand.

        When I get home, I’ll have more to write. I was working on a post mysekf but couldn’t do my thoughts justice. I’ll try to express them here. But I do think there exists a way to justify these or even harsher penalties, though I doubt the logic I’ll offer is what the NCAA used here.

      • in most of your examples, the malfeasance in some way contributed to an improper win.

        Yes, that does make this case different. But keep in mind that wins are what drives the behavior of these programs. To create real incentives to not behave badly, you have to take away what motivates them. To the extent that can be done.

        • Except they still won. They didn’t cheat. We’re just expected to pretend that they didn’t win because they’re bad people.

          If you want to cost them wins, do so going forward and not going backwards.

          (Even if they did cheat, honestly. They still won. We can say they only won because they did cheat. But they won.)

          • Wil, all official records at PSU will show they did not win. Their trophies will be gone. What happened on the field is not the whole of it. I just don’t have a problem with this action.

  4. On January 3, 2006, one of the better college bowl games in recent history was played between the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Florida State Seminoles. The game was resolved in triple overtime when Penn State’s field goal put the score up 26-23. Since the NCAA’s rules regarding stripping a team of its victories is such that there is no “tiers” or “fallbacks,” stripping Penn State of its 2006 Orange Bowl title does not mean that the victory falls by default to Florida State.

    So on the record books, like in the other aspects of this terrible situation, there are no winners.

    • So I can’t call my bookie for my retroactive winnings? Damn.

    • between the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Florida State Seminoles.

      In other words, the fact that they both lost is a good thing.

  5. In other situations, for example an athlete found using PEDs, wins are vacated and it kind of means something. It’s a little mark in the record books which says, “They might not have been able to win if they didn’t use steroids.” It creates eternal doubt which is a real punishment IMO.

    In this siutation I think the goal was to tarnish Paterno’s image beyond repair and if that was the goal they were probably successful. His record win total is gone. 14 of his football seasons were rendered meaningless (in a way).

    The problem is that I don’t know if this serves as a real deterrent. Suspending the program for one year would have been the most fitting punishment to accomplish that goal. Many felt that was going too far and would have destroyed the livlihood of a lot of people who weren’t involved.

        • Well, yes, except that this was clearly never on the table. God forbid Happy Valley have its precious football. Some things are too important. Child-rape though? Not one of those things apparently.

      • I think the strictest punishment ought to simply be “no home games.” If the Death Penalty is off the table – in part due to the hardship it imposes on other schools – then keep them on the road. That would have a deleterious effect on recruiting (though any offense serious enough to warrant this should also result in the loss of scholarship), hurt their pocketbook in a pretty serious way, and be something that you can use over an extended period of time (like 10 years).

        • It’s not a death penalty situation.

          Penn State should be harder on itself (by a large margin) than the NCAA could be.

          By the time the NCAA punishment came down, it should seem like small potatoes compared to what Penn State did to itself.

    • A lot of sportswriters want to see baseball players who used (or were accused of using, or suspected of using) PEDs to have their records vacated in the same way. Especially players named “Barry Bonds”. Since sportswriters can’t accomplish this, they deny these players entry to the Hall of Fame, which is under their control.

      In the case of Penn State, I don’t think it hurt that the title of winningest coach now goes to Eddie Robinson of Grambling,

  6. They simply wanted to avoid seeing Paterno’s name at the top of the leader board. Of course now Bobby Bowden is at the top for NCAA. Which has its own lovely irony considered he’s vacated wins as well.

    Interesting to note that the QB the last time Paterno’s had a now-official win was Mike McQuery.

  7. Meanwhile, NCAA continues to tolerate the existence of these gladiator farms where Football Programs make millions of dollars and the gladiators are treated to a pawky semblance of an education.

    The Colosseum had an area beyond public view called the spoliarium where they dragged the dying gladiators and stripped them of their armour. A human abattoir, where they bled out and died. Penn State is hardly unique in the abuse of children: the teenage athletes who limped out of those showers into oblivion were no less victims than the little kids Jerry Sandusky abused in those showers. And nobody’s going to do anything about those injuries.

    • the teenage athletes who limped out of those showers into oblivion were no less victims than the little kids Jerry Sandusky abused in those showers.

      I think that’s a very tendentious argument, Blaise. As I have already said, I am no sports fan. What little I know about college sports makes me very cynical about it, and I suspect I agree with most of the point you’re trying to make. But I think it’s very shaky, and probably unwise, to rhetorically tie the problems with college athletics writ large to the sexual assault of children. I do not think there is any equivalence at all.

      • I don’t see it as tendentious, not at all. Who’s going to pay the orthopaedic surgeons to put these gladiators back together? When a football coach makes ten times what the college president makes, when it operates under a separate incorporation, let’s not kid ourselves about the NCAA system or the thousands of damaged gladiators dragged off the field and thrust into oblivion.

        Betcha all those little kids were just thrilled to get to visit JoePa’s inner sanctum with Uncle Jerry Sandusky, right up to the point where they found out why he’d brought them there. The parallels are very exact. The poor saps who put on those jerseys and ran out there onto the field and came off in a stretcher with a catastrophic spinal cord crush at C2-C3, tell me they’re any less victims than Jerry’s Kids.

        • I am not saying that they are not victims, Blaise. But I think it is categorically different from being sexually assaulted, and I think it is unseemly to discuss the one in parallel with the other.

          • Category, schmategory. Some busted up kid who gets sent back to Chicken Scratch Arkansas will have a whole lifetime in a wheelchair to look at his scrapbook.

        • The argument of the abused college athlete would carry more weight if it wasn’t something that people really wanted to do. Collegiate athletics runs a gamut from Southern Cal to Southern Oregon. The vast majority of players knowing that they will never play in the NFL. The vast majority of programs knowing that they will never operate in the black.

          • Indeed. Also, the comparison between an 18-year old legal adult and a nine-year-old boy is preposterous.

            But since I have no particular investment in spending my time talking past an interlocutor on the Internet, I think I’m going to drop this.

          • That does, however, raise the question of the morality of leading a 9-year-old into the world of competitive tackle football (which is the only thing that keeps the product dynamic enough at the NFL level to sustain and grow the number of eyeball-engagements in the way they’ve managed to do over the last two decades).

  8. Playing Devil’s Advocate here…

    Stipulated that Sandusky is an evil fuck and Joe Paterno was the enabler of evil fuckitude, as well as allegedly certain other members of the administration of Penn State…

    What the hell does any of this accomplish? Why punish hundreds(?) of young athletes, past and present, hundreds of thousands of alumni, and thousands of students and faculty for the actions or inactions of a handful of people? They didn’t know about it, they’re not responsible for it happening, and had no way of stopping it.

    I could understand if this was a cheating scandal of some sort. If Papa Joe had been pumping his linebackers full of steroids or if we were talking about recruiting violations. You know, something that actually would have possibly affected the outcome of the games unfairly.

    I just don’t understand this punishing of innocents for the actions of a few. If instead of the assistant football coach this had been the assistant dean of literature would they be stripping some random professor’s Pulitzer Prize and taking back all the students’ diplomas?

    It just seems thoroughly stupid and politically “correct” in the worst way.

    • How does it punish athletes and/or students… barring the current athletes, who have an out (special dispensation) to go to another program?

      Really, does it harm you to take away your football team? Isn’t this pretty high up on the scale of first world problems?

      • Football programs are huge money makers – although I don’t know how much of that money makes it outside the athletic department.

      • I can see how it rather abstractly harms those former students whose wins have been vacated.

        I have no sympathy for the harms experienced by any alumni or anyone whose suffering is predicated entirely on their simply being fans of the team.

      • You’re possibly costing them their scholarships or forcing them to change schools if they want to continue to play. While I agree this isn’t end-of-the-world stuff, I wouldn’t like that.

  9. The only lens through which professional sports makes any sense to me is through the lens of professional wrestling.

    They have a name for this particular maneuver. It’s called “The Dusty Finish”. We see one thing happen in the match on Wednesday but find out on Saturday that the Referee has watched the tape and has no choice but to say that the match had to end on a disqualification in the middle, rather than on a pinfall at the end. The outcome of the match is overturned, the record books must be changed to show that so-and-so did *NOT* beat The Bad Guy for the title… The Bad Guy Retains The Title.

    They pay more for the rematch this way.

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