The NCAA is rewriting the record books again:
Ohio State was placed on three years' probation Friday and ordered to erase all references to its 1999 trip to the Final Four and three other [NCAA basketball] tournament appearances under former coach Jim O'Brien. (emphasis added)Setting aside the completely arbitrary and capricious manner in which the NCAA enforces its byzantine rules, (see the recent Jeremy Bloom and Mike Williams cases for examples) and the fundamental unfairness of schools making millions of dollars off the backs of unpaid athletes, this incident highlights one of the more non-sensical trends in sports these days - the 'asterixation' of history.
As silly as this trend seemed the first time it arose, in 1961 when Maris and Mantle were chasing Ruth's single-season home run record, that incident* seems positively rational by comparison to the movement in recent years to make the history of athletic achievement conform to some notion of 'fair competition.' At least then there was a meanigful difference between 154 and 162 game seasons. Now, people argue that we need some mushy, normative standard of 'fair competition', whatever that means.
Returning to the Ohio State retroactive forfeits, because of actions which took place nowhere near the basketball court, we are supposed to pretend that the gritty, gutty (and monumentally non-aesthetically pleasing, it must be said) OSU teams of Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn didn't lose to eventual champions Connecticut 64-58 in the national semi-final game? My Minnesota Golden Gophers didn't lose to Kentucky in the semis two years previously? The most influential college team of the last twenty years, the Fab 5 Michigain Wolverines, didn't lose consecutive national finals? (Well, I guess Chris Webber is off the hook, as he never called a time out he didn't have in a game that never happened.)
I understand the need to enforce rules (of course, the rules enforced shouldn't suck, but that's a different post), but what possible purpose does 'scrubbing' record books serve? It can't possibly have a deterrent effect can it? It certainly doesn't remove painful memories from the spotless minds of sports fans.
And what's next? Why taking a torch back to the baseball record books. Barry Bonds used steroids(!), so, soon he won't have actually hit home runs by the bucketload if certain chattering heads have their way.
Look, sports is not an arena where objective reality can be doubted. OSU actually won all those games. I watched many of them. Presumably, ESPN Classic still shows a few of them from time to time. We know Barry Bonds hit a lot of homeruns because, in addition to our lying eyes, there have been court cases about the balls he hit. Moralistic judgments cannot and should not be used to change the facts, post hoc. Otherwise, where does it stop? Gaylord Perry threw spitballs his entire career. That was also against the rules. He's in the Hall of Fame now. Should he be removed? Kobe Bryant has turned out to be an complete jackass, do we rescind the three championships he won with the Lakers? How about if a jury in Colorado had convicted him?
If baseball doesn't want it's records 'tainted' by steroid-enhanced performances, then maybe it should not have turned a blind eye to steroid use and abuse a decade ago. If the NCAA doesn't want 'ineligible players' leading teams to championships, then it needs to do a better job preventing abuse in the first place. Returning to the scene, five years after the fact, and pretending to erase the accomplishments of those judged 'unworthy' is notable in that it is in equal parts stupid and ineffective.
It's long been a maxim in sports that "if you ain't cheatin', you ain't trying." That's what the referees are for, to catch rule-breakers. 'Historians' imposing some mythical, ahistorical, notion of 'purity' have no business reinventing achievement after the fact.
* Ironically, the "61*" is something of a myth in itself, as MLB keeps no official record book, so there was never an "official asterix" despite Commisioner Ford Frick's threats.