Lance Armstrong won all those Tour de France races. No he didn’t.
And neither did anybody else, apparently because the culture of doping was so pervasive during Armstrong’s career that the International Cycling Union feels it would be absurd to hunt through the fields of seven races until they could find a clean rider who hadn’t quit on a hill somewhere in the Alps. That’s the reasoning behind the UCI’s decision this week to vacate those titles, and whether you agree with it or not, it’s not unprecedented.
Joe Paterno presided over more Division I wins than any other football coach. No he didn’t.
That’s because the Penn State program that had been held up as a paragon of virtue for decades turned out to have been home to a serial child molester, and home base to Jerry Sandusky and his criminal acts even after he was no longer on the payroll. According to the NCAA’s math, that meant Penn State should vacate 112 wins between 1998 and 2011. That made Alabama a distant second in terms of wins vacated by a football team. The currently very high Tide—No. 1 in the land—has seen 29 expunged over four seasons.
The individuals and programs previously experiencing the curious phenomenon of disappearing wins have been guilty of trespasses less well-orchestrated than Armstrong’s and much less vile and felonious than what went on at Penn State. The record of the Memphis men’s basketball team over which John Calipari presided in 2008 went from 38-2 to 0-1 after NCAA investigators had determined that Derrick Rose’s SAT scores were not on the level, but that is only one of the most spectacularly large after-the-fact subtractions to have been experienced by a college team. The list of coaches who’ve lost wins for various violations includes such luminaries as Clem Haskins, Jim O’Brien, Larry Brown, Jim Calhoun, and Jim Valvano, which argues that skirting the rules has been perhaps as pervasive in college basketball as it has been in professional cycling.
Whether the phenomenon of wins even more ephemeral than the authentic triumphs preserved on tarnished cups in dusty trophy cases across the land discourages you depends, of course, on you. If you were among those in the screaming throng who saw Memphis win one of those 38 games in 2008, you may not choose to acknowledge that it didn’t happen. But the phenomenon of vacating games does cast doubt on one of the qualities that has always drawn at least some of the people who care about sports to their passion. Games are supposed to constitute a meritocracy. One individual or one team wins, and after it happens, in the chaos of the locker room, some winner invariably says that they can’t take that away.
Except when they can.