In 2006, a Syracuse guard named Gerry McNamara essentially took over the Big East tournament, making a running, one-handed 3-pointer with less than a second left to defeat Cincinnati and eventually earning the Orange an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. It was an indelible four-game run, except that I’m not sure if, officially, it still really happened.
On Friday, the NCAA announced sanctions against the Syracuse basketball program for a number of violations. Some of these were quite serious; it seems clear that untoward things happened at Syracuse, whether longtime coach Jim Boeheim knew about them or not. And even if you find the system of college basketball itself to be the problem, one might argue that the Orange deserve some sort of penalty merely for being dumb enough to get caught.
And yet, among those penalties is the vacating of 108 of Boeheim’s wins (including several during the 2005-06 season), a notion that continues to be among the most absurd remedies resorted to by the NCAA, which is saying something for an organization that’s mired in a cycle of perpetual fecklessness.
For more than half a century now, the NCAA has been vacating victories in basketball, dating back to a gambling scandal at St. Joseph’s University in 1961. Never mind that the very idea of attempting to erase history is an incredibly uncomfortable notion. It also serves no real purpose. If there’s one thing you think the NCAA would have learned from the Penn State case, it’s that vacating wins often has the opposite effect of what’s intended. The fact that the organization stripped Joe Paterno of 111 victories did not deter anything or anyone; it had the opposite effect, in that Paterno’s 409 wins became a cause celeb in the community, and were often used as a rallying cry by people more concerned about a coach’s legacy than the overarching moral implications of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
At USC, it’s had the same effect; the fact that the Trojans had their wins vacated during their national championship run (and their 2004 national title stripped by the Bowl Championship Series) only gives them rightful reason to complain any time a school doesn’t get hit with the same draconian punishment.
Vacating wins leaves the record books in a confusing middle ground; it really is an attempt to retroactively state that these games never happened. So what’s the point of that? Does anyone really care that, say, the Fab Five’s victories at Michigan are no longer official? Does the NCAA really think it can somehow alter the collective public memory? Most of what the NCAA has vacated up to this point doesn’t really mean much of anything, as veteran columnist Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times noted. But then Dufresne got carried away, writing that the NCAA should have stripped Syracuse of its 2003 national title, too, and that the organization “will not tolerate chicanery but also will not take away the reason why most schools cheat: to win titles that will be cherished forever.”
The issue here is that once a school wins a title, those cherished memories can’t really be taken away. Any attempt to do so will not prove a deterrent. It will only make people angrier, and make things worse. Once something occurs, it’s already happened, even if it’s an illicit activity. This is not exactly rocket science, but this is what the NCAA does that makes people so angry in the first place: They think they can control things that they have no right to control.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb