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Oklahoma Sooners Take Summer Vacation; N.C.A.A. Forfeits Moral Authority

By now, I'm sure you've heard that the N.C.A.A. "vacated" the Oklahoma Sooners' wins from the 2005 season.

Other than an ingrained disdain for visor-wearing Steve Spurrier disciple Bob Stoops, I have no particularly strong feelings either for or against O.U. (Amazingly enough, despite numerous clashes between the Sooners and teams from the S.E.C. and between the Bulldogs and teams from what is now the Big 12, Georgia and Oklahoma have never met on the football field.)

Nevertheless, I cannot help but note that this appears to be part of a larger trend of the N.C.A.A. wimping out with a high-profile program in the crosshairs. Perhaps due to a woefully inadequate investigative staff, Myles Brand's sniveling minions evidently are incapable of taking time away from imposing arbitrary page-length regulations upon media guides and from drawing ludicrous distinctions between the Illinois Fighting Illini (offensive and culturally insensitive) and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (harmless and perfectly appropriate) in order to enforce the few sensible rules the national nanny of intercollegiate athletics sees fit to set forth.

It wasn't always this way. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, it looked like the enforcers were determined to get tough. During a period of less than a decade, Southern Methodist received the death penalty, Auburn received a probation that included being banned from appearing on television, and Alabama was forced to forfeit a season's worth of victories.

I hate Auburn.

Also during that span, the Pac-10 imposed sanctions on the Washington Huskies which were similar to those levied against the Plainsmen, although it certainly appeared at the time that U.W.'s conference coevals, tired of the league hegemony then enjoyed by the Purple and Gold, were motivated as much by vindictiveness and malice as by vengefulness and justice.

Since then, though, the N.C.A.A. and the conferences have backed away from dropping the hammer on major programs. When the Crimson Tide subsequently got themselves back in hot water, the sanctioning body hinted at giving the Red Elephants the death penalty but lacked the guts to follow through on that threat.

Instead of taking tough stands, the N.C.A.A. has opted for plucking a flaccid arrow from its silly quiver and handing down as tepid and ineffectual a punishment as a major violation can receive . . . namely, the "vacating" of games.

It being July, this is the proper time of year for conjugating the verb "vacate," which usually involves sleeping late on a weekday and watching the sun set into the ocean while lounging on a beach in Florida.

As punishments go, this one deserves in response a protest approximately as sincere as, "Please don't throw me in the brier patch!"

We have passed this way before. Just as our colleague Peter Bean originally misunderstood the vacation as a forfeiture, so too did the levying of an identical sanction against Georgia Tech require subsequent clarification on my part:

The source of the initial confusion was a line from the N.C.A.A. regulations which was quoted yesterday on Nathan's weblog. According to the governing rules, "restitution" for using ineligible athletes includes "[r]equir[ing] that team victories achieved during participation by such ineligible student-athlete shall be abrogated and the games or events forfeited to the opposing institutions."

As always, though, it pays to read the fine print, where we learn that "the Management Council may take any one or more of [these] actions against such institution in the interest of restitution and fairness to competing institutions." Forfeiture of games in which ineligible athletes participated is optional, not mandatory, and, for some reason, the infractions committee chose not to exercise that option.

Nathan draws a reasonable analogy between the affected Georgia Tech football teams and the Michigan basketball team, which essentially was stricken from the record books and replaced by an asterisk. The games weren't forfeited; it is as though they never existed.

Nathan's explanation of the N.C.A.A. sanctions is a reasonable one, but I find the N.C.A.A.'s decision to be asinine. First of all, being a red-blooded American, I am no fan of deleting unpleasant events from the past and pretending they never existed. Such a tactic is less suited to the N.C.A.A. than to the U.S.S.R., where leaders who fell out of favor were stricken from the history books and air-brushed out of photographs. What's next, Myles Brand sending someone to Mexico to assassinate Joe Hamilton with an icepick?

To me, the better comparison is not to the Michigan basketball team, but to the Alabama football team. When the Crimson Tide were placed on probation in the mid-1990s, one of the sanctions imposed was the forfeiture of games during the 1993 season in which an ineligible athlete participated. Every team that lost to 'Bama in 1993 gets to show that game as a victory in the record book.

Granted, the Alabama player was ineligible because of improper dealings with an agent and the Georgia Tech players were ineligible due to academic noncompliance, but it seems to me that an ineligible player is an ineligible player. If a guy who wasn't allowed to play played, that's a forfeit.

Beyond that, there is no way for the N.C.A.A. to wave its magic wand and make games disappear that is both fair and consistent. If the participation of an ineligible athlete means, in effect, that no contest occurred, why is it that the only games that ceased to exist were the games Georgia Tech won? If the fact of the 11 offending athletes' presence on the field of play negates the existence of the game as an historical fact, it ought to erase every game in which those players participated or erase none of them. Choosing to count some games but not others is simply arbitrary and illogical.

However, if the N.C.A.A. were to apply its ruling rationally, it would involve negating all of the games in which the ineligible athletes played, including the games the Yellow Jackets lost. Obviously, it would be unfair to the other schools to treat those six seasons as if they never occurred.

During the seasons in question, Georgia was 3-3 against Georgia Tech. If all of those games retroactively didn't happen, then the Bulldogs would get to take three losses out of the record book, but they would also have to give up three victories. Why should Georgia not be able to claim credit for the largest Red and Black victory margin in series history (in 2002) because of a punishment levied against the Yellow Jackets? The 'Dawgs would lose at least as much as they gained for something no one affiliated with the University of Georgia did wrong, but there is no other way to apply this N.C.A.A.-imposed historical revisionism with any degree of consistency.

Obviously, Florida State would have a pretty good gripe about this, too, if the Seminoles were going to have to give up several series victories because of mistakes Georgia Tech made. If "vacated" truly meant "deleted," the Yellow Jackets would get a partial windfall to go along with their punishment, to the manifest disadvantage of the schools that had beaten them. In short, the games cannot be vacated in any manner that is both coherent and just without treating the games as forfeits.

The logic of the N.C.A.A.'s position did not improve with age:
The more I think about it, the less sense the N.C.A.A. sanctions against Georgia Tech make. Forcing the Yellow Jackets to forfeit games in which they fielded academically ineligible players is perfectly logical, but "vacating" those contests in a way that treats the games as though they never occurred punishes the innocent along with the guilty and produces revisionist non sequiturs. For instance, the Ramblin' Wreck defeated Notre Dame in the 1999 Gator Bowl. If Georgia Tech was forced to forfeit that game, it would be a simple matter of sending the victory trophy from The Flats to South Bend. Now, though, the game officially didn't happen. Does that mean the Gator Bowl is no longer able to claim that it has been played continuously each season since the end of the 1945 campaign? Does that mean Notre Dame is no longer able to claim that it went to a bowl game after completing its 1998 regular season slate? The 1998 and 1999 Georgia-Georgia Tech games have been "vacated" and expunged from the books. Against the Yellow Jackets, Quincy Carter threw for 225 yards in 1998 and 345 yards in 1999. Must we now deduct 570 passing yards from Carter's career total, since those numbers were put up in games that officially never happened? Currently, Carter has the third highest career passing tally in the Bulldog record book, but, if the N.C.A.A. sanctions compel Georgia to reduce Carter's total from 6,447 to 5,877, he will fall from third place to fourth, behind Mike Bobo (6,334 career passing yards). That these questions even have to be asked is absurd; the N.C.A.A. needs to declare those games forfeited and be done with it.

In short, the idea of "vacating" games makes no sense. The N.C.A.A. either ought to force schools caught cheating to forfeit their victories or it ought to have the guts to admit that it doesn't have the guts to impose legitimate sanctions.

It was either this or a Go-Gos reference.

In the case of the Yellow Jackets, incidentally, the N.C.A.A. later backed off even from that diluted punishment. Accordingly, I have some advice to offer to the sports information directors for the schools that lost to Oklahoma in 2005:

Don't put an asterisk next to that "L" in your media guide, or you're liable to have to erase it in next year's edition. This is a weak, wishy-washy, watered-down, wussified sanction, but, there being no "Y" (chromosome) in "N.C.A.A.," the sport's overarching organization lacks the masculine fortitude even to follow through with that exceedingly lame punishment against a prominent institution.

On appeal, the N.C.A.A. will overturn this pitiful excuse for a deterrent and reinstate Oklahoma's "vacated" wins. Count on it.

Go 'Dawgs!