If a tree falls in a forest, with no one around to hear it, it may or may not make a sound. But there will certainly be one less tree standing in that forest.
Yesterday, the Penn State Nittany Lions football team played their first game since the death of their legendary coach Joe Paterno and the conviction of longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky for sexual abuse of numerous children. They lost. Paterno's replacement, Bill O'Brien, thus begins his coaching career with a record of 0-1. He has a long way to go to catch up with his predecessor: Joe Paterno's final won-loss record stands at 409-136, making him the all-time winningest (let's just say that's a real word) coach in college football history.
Except he isn't.
In the wake of the Sandusky scandal, the NCAA imposed numerous appropriate sanctions on Penn State: The college paid significant financial penalties, and the team was barred from post-season play for several years. As a further punishment--one particularly targeted at Paterno--the university's wins since 1998 were "vacated"; thus, Paterno's official career victory total stands at 298.
Penn State deserves punishment for its role in facilitating Sandusky's heinous behavior. As far as I'm concerned, the football program could be eliminated entirely. Joe Paterno, who took insufficient steps to protect children from the predations of his longtime friend and assistant coach, deserves a fair amount of condemnation. The university has rightly removed a statue of the coach from its place of honor, and I think any time Paterno's name is mentioned, it should be followed by, "co-conspirator in numerous acts of child molestation."
I have a problem, though, with the idea of "vacating" Penn State's victories. Just because facts come to light that reveal Paterno (co-conspirator in numerous acts of child molestation) to be less of a moral paragon than previously believed does not erase the fact--the fact--that the teams he coached racked up 409 victories. (I think the fact that the NCAA did not vacate the losses suffered during that time indicates the logical bankruptcy of the whole proceeding.) I have a similar problem with the decision to strip Lance Armstrong of his Tour de France titles in the wake of his refusal to continue cooperating with anti-doping investigations--but that at least makes a certain amount of sense: One could argue that Armstrong would not have won those races had he not been using illegal performance enhancing drugs. Of course, since it seems like everybody else was using the same or similar drugs, any advantage Armstrong gained was probably negligible.
There is something more than a little Stalinist in the actions of sports officials rewriting history, airbrushing away accomplishments of those who are later found to have bent the rules in one way or another. Like it or not, Lance Armstrong won seven Tours de France. Pete Rose has more base hits than anyone else in baseball, and he belongs in the Hall of Fame--as does Barry Bonds. As people of my political persuasion have long complained when faced with the distortions or Fox News and its ilk, people are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. Sports history--like all history--depends on scrupulous maintenance of factual records. And the factual record shows that the record for most wins by a college football coach belongs to Mr. Joe Paterno. Co-conspirator in numerous acts of child molestation.