“Well I know who really won.” “They can pretend to take away victories, but they can’t take my memories.” “This is stupid, the NCAA is trying to rewrite history. We know who won the game.” Once again pundits and newscasters willfully misunderstand the NCAA’s increasing use of “vacating” wins and titles from teams that cheat to win.
The last point is critical to remember. Strong moral reasons exist to “vacate” wins and titles as ill begotten gains. We need to remember this because more games and titles will be vacated this year.. At this moment both football teams in the national championship are facing scrutiny for just such ill begotten gains issues. The NCAA basketball champion also is under scrutiny.
So why vacate game at all?
The penalty responds to the fundamental fact—the “winners” cheated. They fraudulently fielded teams that by the rules of the game were illegal. So I don’t care who won; they won ill begotten gains. Good legal and moral principles lead to the conclusion that they should not be entitled to the glory, recognition or prizes associated with games won through deceit and illegality.
Vacating games or titles is a very clear and tight moral response to immoral and illegal activity. Notice it does not “forfeit” games. The NCAA does not award victories to teams that did not earn them. And it does not humiliate duplicitous teams by imposing a loss after many of the players competed with passion and good will to win. In addition, the decisions are timely compared to most glacial NCAA consequences; the punishment is immediate and clear.
The NCAA does not rewrite history, but it annotates history by pointing out the games “won” and titles “won” are not recognized by the authorizing and sponsoring bodies because the team cheated. So the name exists with an asterisk or a vacant space exists on the listings. The annotation reminds people that the victories were gained through dishonor. The “victors” are disgraced, and they should be.
The moral defense of vacating victories flows from two different moral sources. First, quality players like Marcus Camby at Massachusetts or Derrick Rose at Memphis should not have been allowed to play. They cheated and broke the rules to get to that place. (John Calipari of course knew nothing of this). Similarly Reggie Bush violated rules, and his coaches negligently denied and ignored this.Terrelle Pryor and other starters violated rules. Their coach knew but lied and withheld evidence to cover it up.
These Massachusetts, Memphis, USC and Ohio State teams lied and misrepresented themselves. They claimed to abide by rules and authorized their players as legal and eligible, certified. So the players and the institutions collaborate in mutually beneficial denial and sometimes cover ups to field teams that are corrupted by the chain of illegal actions and complicity. The ineligible players compete, and the coaches, administration and other players are complicit or negligent as they deny or ignore the irregularities compounding the deceit. The team is immoral and illegal as constituted.
The second moral issue arises from fairness. Not only is the one team tainted despite its high caliber as one built upon deceit and illegal actions, but the other teams actually abided by the rules. The other teams are at a fundamental disadvantage because they played fair, and the cheating team did not. Vacating victories reasserts the priority of fairness in competition.
In other words, the team that “won” did not deserve to win. They cheated and defrauded others and had unfair advantages. Now Massachusetts may have won a championship without Marcus Camby and Ohio State may have won 11 games, the Big 10 title and the Sugar Bowl without Terrelle Pryor, but we do not know. The point is that they played and tainted the “victory.” The rest of the team may have played their hearts out and won fair and square on the field of play, but the talent and depth surrounding them had been acquired or sustained by violating rules and had an unfair advantage before they stepped onto the field of play.
I think the decision to vacate needs to be followed by requirements to pay back money from bowls or championships or at least to face major fines the compound and create strong financial as well as moral incentives to comply.
This approach can result in seeming punishment of the innocent. An angry letter of an Georgia Tech player dared the NCAA to pry his championship ring from “my cold, dead of finger,” after the NCAA vacated 3 games and the ACC championship for Georgia Tech for playing two ineligible players.” These punishments are not perfect, but the coaches who ignore, deny or abet the violations were negligent and often the other players know and do not disclose the issues. No one knows what the outcome would have been if the illegal players had not played, but the existing outcome does not have moral or legal standing.
Vacating does not deny the game or the effort and worth of the play. But vacating victories stands as a good and defensible moral response to illegal and immoral actions that created tainted victories.