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No-Win Situation

It doesn't matter if you put your hand on a stack of Bibles and swear that you watched USC cruise undefeated through the 2005 regular season before losing to Texas in the Rose Bowl. The Trojans' 12 victories never happened. It makes no difference if you cue up the video of Memphis losing to Kansas in the final of the 2008 NCAA men's basketball tournament. The Tigers were never there.

Your mind isn't playing tricks on you—the NCAA is. The infractions committee has become increasingly fond of taking an eraser to history as a way of punishing rule-breaking programs, excising their accomplishments the way you might cut an ex-spouse out of a family photo. The Trojans' perfect '05 regular season was stricken from the records in June primarily because running back Reggie Bush was found to have accepted cash and gifts from agents that year, just as the Tigers' Final Four trip was vacated in August 2009 along with their 38 victories after guard Derrick Rose was ruled ineligible mainly because of fraudulent SAT scores. In the past two years Arizona, Alabama and Florida State, among other schools, have also had victories vacated in football or basketball because of NCAA violations. So many wins and entire seasons have been invalidated that college sports seem to exist in two dimensions: the real one and the airbrushed one.

No one would argue against punishing a cheating program, and it's hard to blame the NCAA for using every penalty at its disposal, including symbolic ones. Yet invalidating victories is a pointless measure that penalizes no one while muddying the official record with scenarios that defy logic. Vacated wins are different from forfeits, for instance, in that the team that lost the game isn't credited with a victory, which means it's possible to have lost a game that had no winner. Make sense?

But while expunging wins can make records harder to understand, the punishment itself is easy to ignore. UMass reached the Final Four in 1996, an appearance that was stricken from the official record a year later when center Marcus Camby was found to have accepted cash and gifts from an agent. The NCAA requested that the Minutemen take down the banner in the Mullins Center commemorating the team's finest season, but the school refused. The banner still hangs, a testament to how little weight the penalty carried.

The NCAA isn't alone in trying to find ways to Photoshop the past; the urge to go back in time to clean up the stains left on our games is spreading. Bush gave in to it last week when he voluntarily returned his 2005 Heisman Trophy amid reports that the Heisman Trust was preparing to strip him of it. The unmasking of the steroid era in baseball has ignited debates over whether MVP awards that went to admitted performance-enhancing-drug users such as Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez should be taken away.

But what happened, right or wrong, happened. Bush may have returned his Heisman, but he has already known the thrill of being voted the winner and taking the podium for his victor's speech, experiences that can't be taken away or transferred to another player. The trophy itself is just hardware; as an NFL star, Bush is rich enough to have a replica made out of platinum if he wants. The value is in the memory, and no delete key can erase that.

A just punishment is hard to achieve, and wiping wins off the books is not it. But this tactic has become more common even as the NCAA has come under increasing criticism for levying penalties that often hurt players and coaches who arrive after the real culprits are gone. For example, while the Trojans suffer a two-year probation and a reduction of 30 scholarships, coach Pete Carroll, on whose watch the violations occurred, is safely in the NFL after signing a five-year contract with the Seahawks for almost $33 million.

Tennessee had the right idea earlier this month when the school reduced basketball coach Bruce Pearl's salary by $1.5 million over the next five years after Pearl admitted to having misled NCAA investigators looking into alleged recruiting violations. Though rule-breaking schools can be forced to repay money earned from NCAA tournament appearances—Memphis had to return the $615,000 from its 2008 run—the NCAA has no jurisdiction over bowl games, which means that schools get to keep their bowl payouts regardless of what violations they are later found to have committed. Because it used two ineligible players, Oklahoma "lost" eight victories in 2005 (the wins were later reinstated), but the Sooners kept the $2.1 million they earned for appearing in the Holiday Bowl that year. "We've come to the point where we take a look very seriously at penalizing the people who are involved," says Paul Dee, chairman of the infractions committee.

The bowl system could help the NCAA's cause by requiring money to be returned if a program is later found to have committed significant violations; erasing numbers from a school's bank account is far more effective than wiping away W's from its record book. Forget about trying to unring the bell. Just make sure that every cheating program pays dearly to hear it chime.

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Invalidating victories is the NCAA's pointless measure that penalizes no one while muddying the official record with scenarios that defy logic.