Rewriting History? The Case of Joe Paterno

Alan Bliss

As part of its sanctions against Penn State University, the NCAA last week "vacated" 111 of the Nittany Lions' football victories under their late coach, Joe Paterno. The order changes the official record of Penn State's teams from 1998 to 2011. Technically, then, Coach Paterno no longer holds the NCAA record as the winningest coach in Division I college football.

A non-academic friend, a lawyer by profession, complains that the NCAA is rewriting history. Professional historians like me, my friend argues, should be outraged. Surprisingly, my friend is hardly alone in reading this news as an intolerable assault on historical truth. In the July 24 New York Times, Northwestern University sociologist Gary Alan Fine published an op-ed ("George Orwell and the N.C.A.A.") objecting to the NCAA's records sanction against Penn State:

Professor Fine sees this as a disturbing attempt to re-write the past, or to create a false, "fantasized," history. "George Orwell would be amused," Fine believes. But neither Fine nor others who make this argument seem to be historians, who, as far as I know, are unconcerned by the NCAA's periodic fiddling with its own record books. One reason is that retroactive bookkeeping does little to alter any "history" other than the records of the institution doing the counting. And mind, we are talking here about Division I collegiate football, where even indisputable facts are disputed endlessly. Even if that weren't so, sports historians take pains to explicate the circumstances of athletic records. Future researchers looking up the Lions' football stats will be obliged to learn all about the University's miserable scandal. The NCAA's purpose in sanctioning Penn State will be lastingly served.

As I teach my students, the past is what happened, while history is how we explain and interpret the past. Denying or obscuring inconvenient facts throws historians off at times, and can indeed rise to the level of the Orwellian. But in the long run the practice often fails. For example, we now know that Woods Hole Oceanographer Bob Ballard was not really engaged in a pure-science project to locate the wreck of the RMS Titanic. His 1985 expedition was financed by the U.S. Defense Dept., which sought his technology to examine the deep-sea wrecks of its two lost Cold-war era nuclear submarines, the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. After obliging the Navy, Dr. Ballard carried out his "cover" mission of locating the Titanic. The success of that side-trip made Ballard an inspirational hero on the order of a winning college football coach. Among his many admirers, the new facts haven't seriously knocked him off his pedestal - they just complicate his story and that of the Titanic's rediscovery.

Historians understand better than most how little we sometimes know. We are alert to the risks that go with formulating historical understanding from data. Numbers can lie, whether they involve college football or voting. I teach students to be skeptical, critical, and open to new ideas, new sources, new data, and new interpretations of the evidence of the past. Some ideologues disdain that as "historical revisionism." But history is endlessly under revision, and we shouldn't want it any other way.

Joe Paterno was a hero. He will always hold a place in history, though the context is different now. The truth about his and Penn State's football program has badly dented his legacy. The NCAA's action on his win-loss record can't hurt the late Coach, whose troubles are over. No doubt, his family and partisans will grieve about this poisonous affair for the rest of their lives. Mainly, Penn State's vacated wins are a message to other coaches, players, administrators, fans, boosters, and just regular onlookers. The sanctions also help show that history has an annoying habit, which historians encourage, of outting lies.

Alan Bliss is a historian of the modern U.S. His research is on metropolitan political economy, especially in Sunbelt cities. He is presently a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of North Florida.