Roughly ten years ago, Tony Korneiser hosted a national sports radio show. In one segment, he said he was contacted by a journalist polling sportswriters to name the "biggest jerks in sports." Kornheiser said he declined -- I think he said it was a lazy way to make up a story. If so, he was right.
But at the end of the show, he read listener emails. One said something like this:
"Biggest jerks in sports? That's easy:
1. Lance Armstrong
2. Joe Paterno
3. Joe Torre"
It was intended to be funny at the time. It's more ironic now, as Armstrong and Paterno had the biggest falls from grace one could imagine in sports. (Torre, then the popular and successful Yankees manager, maintains a good public reputation as far as I know.)
The nature of allegations that fell Armstrong and Paterno couldn't be more different, but one common thread remains...
Lance's Tour de France titles have been stripped, and Paterno's Penn State football victories from 1998 through 2011 have been vacated.
It's like they "never happened" in the official histories of their respective sports, even though we all know they did happen.
In Paterno's case, the presumed coverup of his assistant Jerry Sandusky's child sexual abuse was serious enough to vacate all of Penn State victories since the first allegations were made. It's assumed the program would be different without the allegations, and Penn State thereby "cheated" all this time.
But as Dan Flaherty writes, there was no apparent coverup, and Joe Paterno cooperated with the grand jury investigating Sandusky.
And what NCAA rule was broken in the process? In what sense did Penn State "cheat" when Sandusky wasn't even on the coaching staff or charged with a crime?
The stripping of victories in the NCAA record book in the absence of any specific rules violation is a cause of concern, because of the arbitrariness of the process. In the post-Catholic Priest sexual abuse revelations, we are more aware of the prevalence of such abuse, but should college football's history be rewritten because of it?
Is that "atonement," and if it is, for whom?
Or is this a war against truth?
Isn't this unfair to the teams Penn State actually beat? If Penn State beat one team that caused it to have a losing season, and that coach was subsequently fired, will he rehired now because, oh, wait, he won the game after all?
Rewriting the scoreboard isn't just rewriting history, it's warring against reality. Nothing can undo Sandusky's crimes, and despite wiping the wins from the NCAA record books, nothing can undo the impact of the losing on coaching staffs and players. The games were won honestly and fairly by Penn State.
Lance Armstrong's case is different, but still a war against history.
I saw Oprah Winfrey interview him on January 17 and 18, 2013. He did himself no favors in terms of public relations.
But I believe he's entitled to keep his seven yellow jerseys as victor of the Tour de France.
Let's review this as a thought experiment in another venue, called State U.:
- Scholar A commits plagiarism on his PhD dissertation.
- This plagiarism is undetected.
- Scholar A is awarded his PhD.
And then, seven years later:
- State U. implements more stringent methods of detecting plagiarism for PhD dissertations.
- Scholar A's dissertation is retroactively investigated.
- Scholar A's PhD is revoked on account of the retroactive plagiarism investigation.
Is this justice?
Not at all.
Rather, State U. should come forward and say that...
- Scholar A plagiarized, but...
- Institutional failures at State U.abetted the plagiarism, or failed to stop it, and for that reason...
- Scholar A will not be stripped of the PhD; Scholar A won't be punished for State U's failures.
I think it's more than just to destroy a scholar's reputation on account of cheating, just as it's more than just to destroy an athlete's reputation on account of cheating. But you can't take away the accomplishments under the standards and practices of the time they were made.
That's what the Lance Armstrong situation appears to me. There is more stringent drug testing now than when Lance competed. He got away with it when he competed. That was a failure on Cycling's part, and its own institutional failures are to blame more than Lance's ethical failures that caused cheating in the first place.
On January 22, 2013, Sean Payton was reinstated by the NFL as head coach of the New Orleans Saints. He had served, since April 2012, a suspension for being ultimately responsible for the "bounty scandal" run by then-Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams, who remains suspended indefinitely.
That scandal involved alleged "bounty" hits by Saints defenders against NFL star quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner in the 2009-10 playoffs. Although suspensions against players were eventually lifted, the NFL maintains the program did indeed exist.
And yet, this "cheating" didn't strip the Saints of their Super Bowl title.
That's because everyone knows they won it.
Just as they know Lance Armstrong won his Tour de France titles and Penn State won those football games.
If we pretend they didn't happen, what else will we pretend didn't happen?