Prof: Rewriting history by altering Penn State record is risky

July 25, 2012  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Vacating 112 of Penn State University's football wins means rewriting history, and that can be dangerous, says a Purdue University historian. 

"It's a bad precedent to alter the historical record to meet the ends of a current problem," says Randy Roberts, a distinguished professor of history who specializes in American and sports history. "I am in support of changing the culture that led to these horrific crimes, and while vacating games makes sense if a program was caught cheating with ineligible players, there is great risk in trying to erase Paterno or the success of the program. When history is revised - such as when some try to alter slavery's role in the American Civil War or how the former Soviet Union government would literally omit political figures when they fell out of party favor - the larger truth is lost."

As part of the sanctions in the Penn State child abuse scandal, the NCAA vacated 14 years of the football program's victories dating back to 1998. This also means former head coach Joe Paterno is no longer college football's winningest coach.

"Dismissing Paterno as the winningest coach as a form of punishment is not the answer. He'll always be associated with this tragedy, and I don't see that as a bad thing," Roberts says. "We need to be reminded that humans, programs and institutions can fail. History should always honestly record failures and successes. We need to be more sophisticated about how we remember people and events."

For example, Roberts says that O.J. Simpson's NFL record as the first professional football player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season is still recognized even though he is in prison.

Roberts has written more than 30 books on topics including Mike Tyson, Joe Louis, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Oscar Robertson, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Boston sports.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Source: Randy Roberts,

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