Gary Alan Fine: George Orwell and the N.C.A.A.

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Gary Alan Fine is a professor of sociology at Northwestern University and the author of “Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept and Controversial.”

On Monday, the National Collegiate Athletic Association made a remarkable — and disturbing — decision. As one of the sanctions against Pennsylvania State University, it determined that all of Penn State’s football victories from 1998 to 2011 were to be “vacated.” Whoosh! As a result, Joe Paterno no longer holds the major college coaching record for career wins. Someone else now has that honor. George Orwell would be amused.

In his magnificent dystopia, “1984,” Orwell understood well the dangers of “history clerks.” Those given authority to write history can change the past. Those sweat-and-mud victories of the Nittany Lions — more points on the scoreboard — no longer exist. The winners are now the losers.

One might wonder whether the N.C.A.A.’s rush to judgment — a rush that ignored its own procedures of examining each case through the sanctions committee — was truly necessary. And one might question a set of sanctions whose human victims were not involved in the crimes. But let us put aside these niceties. Surely Penn State the institution deserves sanctions for the deplorable actions of authorities. Sometimes organizations are treated as people....

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