Revisionist Sports

One of the things I enjoy most about sports is the sense of shared history and experience that they give us. Those of us who care about sports can share the experience even if we didn’t watch the event together.* Years after an event occurs it’s possible to reminisce and talk about what we saw.

*One of the problems with treating the Olympics as a reality TV show rather than a sporting event is the loss of this sense of shared experience.

The recent Lance Armstrong and Penn State situations have pointed out how this is no longer the case. Any sporting event I watch now is subject to being revised sometime in the future. It pisses me off when George Lucas does this. It’s even more frustrating when it’s applied to history.

This isn’t a case where I’m defending Lance Armstrong or Penn State or Ohio State or Marion Jones or USC or Michigan* etc. etc. And I completely understand the urge to punish by retroactively removing successes. The problem is that rewriting the past ends up cheapening the present. It’s retroactive replay.

*The NCAA is a pioneer in rewriting the past.

My biggest problem with instant replay is the delayed celebration. When a great football play happens, before celebrating, you have to check for flags, then wait for a replay challenge, and then wait for the play to be reviewed. Only after the ref announces the result can you celebrate.

This sucks.

I like to react when something happens not wait for it to be confirmed. And it’s deeply annoying to feel like something happened only to be told that it didn’t happen at all. But at least the confirmation or erasure comes quick and the game itself continues.

That it’s possible to change events years or decades after they happened means people are being encouraged to keep the same mentality of waiting for confirmation long after they’ve watched the event. All those crazy rides which got Americans excited about the Tour de France? Never happened.* That Ohio State vs. Penn State football game in 2010? Never happened.** Who knows what events from this year’s Olympics will be overturned in the next years. And really, who cares?

*It does not surprise me that most people I know tend toward defending Armstrong. It’s not HIM they’re defending, it’s their memories.

**Essentially. Both sides vacated victories that year.

Once people stop being invested in the result of a sporting event, the event itself stops being of interest. Sports needs to find a way of dealing with controversies in its past which do not threaten the event itself. Rewriting the past isn’t the solution.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

6 thoughts on “Revisionist Sports”

  1. The first college football game I attended I spent 24 hours on a bus (including six hours of layover in Port Authority Bus Terminal–an eye-opener) to visit some girls I’d met through trivia at State College and watch Penn State throttle Northwestern 49-0. October of…2002? They had to make me a fake PSU ID to get into the game, I got a Penn State hat, they painted my face, we pregamed (rum and Sprite) in 32 degree weather, I was a part of the (temporarily) third-largest city in Pennsylvania, and we road tripped that January all the way down the East Coast to watch them lose an awful game to Auburn in the Capital One bowl.

    These memories are still with me, and cannot be erased by NCAA fiat (especially not the loss, which wasn’t vacated) but the misdeeds that resulted in the vacated wins, loss of prestige, etc. were actively going on at the time, and possibly actively being covered up even at that time–it just wasn’t publicly known. What response should there be at the institutional level to that?

    On some level, these universities play for the glory, and the records, and the money that brings in. Perhaps it would have been more just to give them a death penalty for a few years and then let them move on–but I can certainly see the impulse for a retributive attack on the record books.

    1. The memories are with you but doesn’t the fact that that 49-0 game no longer counts bug you at some level?

      The NCAA has a record of allowing anything to go, collecting the money, and then invalidating the results years later. I think that this tactic cheapens the sport and doesn’t really deter anyone (since, after all, the money has already been collected).

      I understand the desire to attack the record books but when you start erasing things you get into messy territory very quickly.

  2. That 49-0 win happened barely six months after an assistant coach walking in on Sandusky raping a ten year-old boy in the locker room. Shouldn’t that bug us on some level?

    But on the level of the NCAA recordbook it seems more like an asterisk than an erasing. Wikipedia is full of descriptions of Penn State games and seasons, and almost everywhere there are references to, say, Paterno’s win totals before they were vacated. (example: “Among NCAA Division I coaches… Paterno held the top spot with 409, but all 111 wins from the 1998 through 2011 seasons were vacated due to NCAA sanctions following the Penn State child sex abuse scandal.” from here.)

    For trivia geeks/sports fans and even encyclopedists, it seems more like it’s just a retroactive shame flag rather than a wholesale erasure of history. And it’s hard for me to argue those reminders shouldn’t be there.

  3. Hrm. I agree with you, I just seem to disagree about the extent to which after-the-fact NCAA decisions can be seen to be “saying the event didn’t happen.” Does the NCAA make an active claim that these things no longer exist? Do people who listen to the NCAA’s publicity organs (perhaps a mistake in itself) think this?

    (It was nice to be able to talk about my fond Penn State memories, by the way.)

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