Thursday, July 26, 2012

Penn State's Punishment and Social Facts

My father sent the following email to a group of family and friends:
Penn State’s NCAA Punishment:
1. A fine of $60 million, which is approximately equal to the (past) annual gross revenue of the football program.

2. A four-year ban from postseason play; thus, Penn State will not be allowed to share in the conference’s bowl revenue, an estimated loss of about $13 million a year.

3. A cut in the number of football scholarships it can award each year.

4. The NCAA also erased 14 years of Penn State victories, wiping out 111 of Paterno’s wins and stripping him of his standing as the most successful coach in the history of big-time college football. Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, with 377 major-college victories, will replace Paterno, while Paterno will be credited with 298 instead of 409.
I don’t get #4. How do you change history? What about all the former players and spectators who know what actually happened, and what about all the newspaper and TV archives that attest to what actually happened? How is the NCAA going to change all that? It makes no sense to me.
Two of my father’s friends replied. One of them, JAB, argued that punishment #4 was an attempt to impose “a punishment that hits them in a place other than the wallet,” which was needed in order to send a message that all those wins are less important than honor and integrity. The other, Mike, said that history is changed all the time; as an example, he offered a story in which a company accidentally pays an employee $100,000 when it should have paid him $10,000, and then takes back $90,000 after noticing the error.

Here is how I responded:
I don’t think JAB and Mike’s responses to my dad’s question are sufficient.

With respect to JAB’s point, no one is disputing the NCAA’s motivation. They want to punish Penn State for bad behavior, and clearly there are ways they can do it (see items #1-3). The question is whether the NCAA has the ability to change history. History is what it is. If you committed murder, could the government punish you by changing your birthday? Of course not; your birth happened on a particular day. They could pretend it happened on a different day, or not at all, but that wouldn’t change the fact.

With respect to Mike’s point, it shows that it’s possible to remedy past events, but not to change them. In his example, you were still paid $100,000 in the month of February, period. The mistake was made, and the money appeared in your bank account. The subsequent take-back fixes the mistake, but it does not change history.

I would add to Dad’s point that trying to change history creates historical anomalies and contradictions. If Penn State didn’t win a particular playoff game, that implies that its opponent must have won. But then why didn’t that opponent appear in the subsequent playoff game? (Not being a follower of college football, I realize that “playoff” might be the wrong word, and the structure for determining champions isn’t like the NFL’s bracket structure. But you see my point.)

If I were to defend NCAA’s punishment #4, my defense would rely on the notion of a “social fact.” Some facts are true by the nature of physics, chemistry, etc., and therefore do not change based on human desire or behavior -- such as that the earth orbits around the sun. But social facts are different. They are true based on human conventions and values that define them as such. For instance, there is no “cosmic truth” about who won a game of chess. Rather, who won the game is a function of a set of rules for play, and those rules were invented by humans. Likewise, whether Philip and Elaine [my parents] are married is a matter of social convention -- what we as a society regard to be necessary and sufficient conditions for marriage.

In the case of college football, what NCAA is basically saying is that a “win” isn’t what you think it is. You may have thought that a “win” meant scoring a larger number of points by means of touchdowns, field goals, etc. (and of course, all those things are social facts as well). But NCAA is saying that, in an NCAA-qualified game, a “win” means both scoring a larger number of points within the game and abiding by certain standards outside the game. Thus, it is possible to decide or discover, retroactively, that what seemed to be a win was not. In short, NCAA claims the right to define the social facts within its sphere of control.

However, it would also be valid for someone (like Dad) to respond thus: “Okay, fine, you can define ‘win’ however you want for NCAA purposes. But you can’t redefine ‘win’ for the general public. The general public understands ‘win’ in terms of the conventional rules of football. And by those rules, it’s a fact that Penn State won all those games, and NCAA is powerless to change that.”

I leave it as an exercise to apply this lesson to the question of who won the 2000 election.
Incidentally, my brother Neal independently wondered the same thing my dad did. He tweeted:
Hey, I just learned Texas A&M won the Alamo Bowl in 1999 & 2007! Maybe some of my TX friends can get me the commemorative T-shirts...
Maybe some enterprising person will now start making them.


Anonymous said...

I think what they're really saying is that official recognition of those wins will be withdrawn. The real penalty here is being removed from the record books and so forth.

It's like when people talk about a championship or medal having an "asterisk" -- you can say you won it, but we all know that there were things going on that make the win suspect. It makes more sense when you talk about cheating (i.e. we know you didn't "earn" the win), but one real result is the statement that no one will ever remember your wins without also remembering your shame.

Unknown said...

I seldom bother to comment on blogs, but your error is too egregious to simply let stand. The "historical" record of sporting events is often changed, because the accepted result is subject to the constraint that you didn't break the rules... in other words that you didn't cheat. This has happened plenty of times in individual sports (think Ben Johnson at the Olympics...Jim Thorpe springs to mind but for other reasons), but it has also happened in team sports... nothing new here. "Penn State" as a corporate body (not a corporation) cheated by harboring individuals breaking the law, and as cheats their "victories" cannot stand, and, yes, Texas A&M did win those bowls.... because their opponents cheated: no individual players need have cheated, but the body they represent did cheat. Tough... but suck it up and get over it: no misrepresentation of history, just the re-establishment of the truth.

Glen Whitman said...

Unknown, if you think we disagree, then I think you need to read more closely. My position encompasses yours. I said, "Okay, fine, you [NCAA] can define ‘win’ however you want for NCAA purposes" -- which is the sum total of your argument. NCAA gets to set its own rules and definitions. But then I go a step further by saying what NCAA doesn't have the power to do: to change what the general public thinks constitutes a win. At best, they can influence what the public thinks on that question.

One reason I think the NCAA may have a difficult time persuading the public to go along with its definition is that it seems odd to characterize sexual abuse as "cheating." Reprehensible, horrifying, and disgusting? Absolutely. But I suspect "cheating" has a different connotation to most people. I think of corked bats, steroids, and other things that confer an unfair advantage. It's hard to see how molesting young boys would result in better outcomes on the playing field.

Paladin said...

Are the withdrawn wins also scrubbed from the record of games played by the opponents? Would an opponent now have a record of, say, 10 - 0 instead of 10 - 1? What happens to they game they played and lost? Could a school now claim an undefeated season?