Stripping Down: Ex Post Punishments Of Athletes

August 23rd, 2012

There seem to be two types of punishments for athletes. When an athlete is caught doing something bad in the act, the punishment is suspension. Test positive for performance-enhancing drugs, you are suspended for 50 games. If a “student-athlete” is deemed academically ineligible, he cannot play anymore.

However, what happens if the malfeasance is discovered after the fact–or even after the athlete has stopped playing the game. Generally, it seems the only punishment in these cases involves retroactively stripping the player, or team as it may be, of victories or various records.

Look no further than to the NCAA’s punishment of Penn State. The NCAA stripped Penn State of victories from many seasons, and even eliminated victories from the record of Coach Joe Paterno (removing his title as the winningest coach  in college footbal). Lance Armstrong will be stripped of all of his Tour De France championships. Barry Bonds’s record-breaking 73rd homerun ball was marked with an “asterisk.”

Of course it is impossible to eliminate memories, as Orwellian as it seems. I was at Penn State during many of Paterno’s victories. I remember them. The revenue Penn State generated from those games will not be rescinded. College players who were drafted based on their performance in the NFL will not be undrafted.

But, now in any record book, those victories are gone. Well, they are probably still there with some kind of asterick.

To that, I ask, so what? What’s the point of eliminating victories after the fact?

It seems that the only reason why this punishment exists is that it is the only way to punish an athlete after the fact. Fines would not be nearly as effective.

Once a player stops playing, all he or she has, is a reputation. In fact, many washed-up former-athletes trade on this reputation for the rest of their lives. Without this reputation, their lives become much less meaningful.

Thus, it seems these punishments hit the former-athletes in the only way possible. What the sport gave them–a chance to build their legacy–the sport can take away.

And ultimately, all we have is our reputation. To quote Shakespeare from Othello (as I seldom do):

OTHELLO act 2, sc. 3 (“Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of my self and what remains is bestial.”).

If I ever mess up, I hope that my blog posts are not deleted. That would be quite distressing.

Update: Deadspin makes a point I neglected to mention. What happens when Lance Armstrong loses his Tour de France titles? Well, it seems that now all seven titles go to the runner-ups, who also have doping scandals of their own! It seems they were all bad.

Though, this headline from the Onion is a personal favorite: Texas A&M Fans Celebrate 1999 Alamo Bowl Victory Over Penn State:

 COLLEGE STATION, TX—Following the NCAA’s decision Monday to vacate all of Penn State’s wins from 1998 through 2011, thousands of Texas A&M students and fans poured onto campus in a frenzy of excitement to celebrate what has now been ruled as a victory for their team in the 1999 Alamo Bowl. “First thing we had to do was track down Coach [R.C.] Slocum—we found him at home mowing his lawn and immediately dumped Gatorade on him,” said 32-year-old former Aggie fullback Ja’Mar Toombs, standing in a streamer-strewn street below a banner reading “Congratulations, 1999 Alamo Bowl Champs.” “You spend your whole life dreaming about NCAA rulings like this, and when one finally comes, you almost can’t believe it. I’m just so happy to share it with those of my teammates who are still around.” When reporters asked about the appropriateness of celebrating a game that took place during a trip on which Jerry Sandusky allegedly molested a young boy he brought with him to Texas, their questions were inevitably drowned out by triumphant chants of “A and M!”

I guess there is a silver, or perhaps maroon, lining for every scandal!

Update 2: A thought just occurred to me. Were there rules in place against doping at the time that Armstrong (or Bonds or McGwire or others) doped? If so, how was doping defined? Is it possible that according to the rules in place at the time, they did not violate the rules? I’m going to be pedantic here, but there are different “banned lists.” Perhaps a drug that is banned in 2012 was not banned in 1998 (likely because no one but the athletes knew it existed). If so, aren’t all of these forms of punishments ex post facto? Punishing Armstrong for something that was permissible at the time–and something that everyone did? I realize due process and ex post facto rules do not apply to sports suspensions, but humor me. Is it fair to hold athletes–who are encouraged to get every advantage possible–to standards determined in the future?