The problem of erasing memories

There are plenty of bad epithets to attach to Lance Armstrong’s name. “Trotskyite” isn’t one of them.

Still, the disgraced former cycling champ Armstrong and early Russian communist leader Leon Trotsky share one peculiar characteristic. It’s one that might apply to members of recent UNC-Chapel Hill championship basketball teams in the not-too-distant future.

The characteristic should be familiar to readers of George Orwell’s dystopian classic, “1984.” Armstrong and Trotsky rank among the most notable victims of the real-life version of Orwell’s fictional “memory hole.”

Spawned by the desire to wipe the historical record clean of misdeeds, the concept of a memory hole troubles this observer. It’s much more difficult to learn lessons from historical failures if no one realizes that history ever took place.

Scratching out Armstrong’s seven consecutive victories from the Tour de France record books carries little political significance. And the world will spin without missing a beat if the NCAA forces leaders of the Chapel Hill campus to remove championship banners from stadium rafters.

But both actions would rely on the notion that rectifying wrongdoing requires a rewriting of history. That same notion can lead to much more disturbing consequences.

Witness Trotsky’s removal from the Soviet Union’s record books. He didn’t use blood doping to help win military victories. He didn’t pretend to attend classes to stay eligible for Communist Party leadership.

Instead Trotsky’s very existence became inconvenient for murderous dictator Josef Stalin, who had no desire for his subjects to know that communism could take any form other than the official party line. Rather than allow people to learn about alternative ways to apply Marxist-Leninist ideology, Stalin and his allies simply removed Trotsky from the historical record.

“Offices of airbrushers, razor wielders, and croppers spent their days retouching photographic history,” according to a 1999 Washington Post essay. “Is that the saboteur Leon Trotsky standing next to Lenin? Into the memory hole.”

Sending a memory down the hole doesn’t necessarily signal sinister intent. Returning to the Armstrong example, one suspects that the decision to strip his name from the record books reflected the professional cycling world’s sincere desire to help clean up the sport. It’s hard to argue that cheaters never win if the list of Tour de France winners includes Armstrong’s name every year from 1999 to 2005.

Still, the historical revisionism creates unintended consequences. As memories of Armstrong’s accomplishments fade, the same could happen to the scandal that caused his fall from grace. Will prospective cheaters in the future treat Armstrong’s story as a cautionary tale if they’ve never heard the story? How will people know how to identify the signs of intricate, large-scale cheating if the prime example of that cheating no longer elicits a hint of recognition?

It’s also a bit unnerving to pretend an incident or event never took place. Armstrong took victory laps around the Champs-Elysees seven years in a row. He basked in applause while standing on the victory podium. He took congratulatory phone calls from world leaders. Erasing his name from the record books doesn’t mean that these events never occurred. To pretend otherwise seems duplicitous.

That’s one reason why this observer, for one, hopes the NCAA does not require UNC-Chapel Hill to forfeit championships and erase records tainted by the still-unresolved scandal surrounding bogus “paper classes.” The next step in that scandal played out Wednesday. Campus officials faced the university’s Committee on Infractions at a meeting in Nashville.

Tar Heel fans ought to wait before they cheer, “Right on! Keep the banners!” They might not like the alternative to sending championship records down the memory hole.

Other forward-looking penalties make perfect sense — including harsh, painful penalties.

Athletics department personnel who took part in underhanded scheming to keep college athletes eligible for classes ought to face major sanctions. Ban them from any NCAA-related activity for a lengthy period. Institute lifetime bans for those who committed the most serious offenses.

It’s also no problem, in my book, if the NCAA imposes sanctions on teams or even an entire athletics department that benefited from violations. Ban teams from postseason play for four or five years. Allow current players to transfer without impediment to any other school.

If that’s not enough, cut the number of future scholarships to limit the teams’ competitiveness. Force them to limit their schedules in ways that prevent the school and athletics department from maximizing revenue. Craft a penalty that creates a clear disincentive for the Chapel Hill campus, and other NCAA schools, to engage in similar shenanigans in the future.

(Astute Tar Heel fans might remember that the primary reason revered basketball coach Dean Smith first secured his job in 1961 was because of the university’s determination to clean up its act in the wake of a scandal linked to his predecessor. While Smith and his teams struggled with mediocre performance for several years, no one tried to erase the record of UNC’s undefeated 1957 national championship team.)

Prospective penalties might be warranted. But don’t pretend that the Tar Heel men’s basketball teams didn’t hoist championship trophies in 2005 and 2009. The players won the games. Their fans stormed Franklin Street. The team visited the White House. The university reaped the short-term benefits from increased publicity and athletic apparel sales.

Erasing these achievements from a record book cannot make them disappear.

With forward-looking penalties, what might disappear instead is the pride Tar Heel fans feel when they see tainted banners hanging from the Smith Center rafters. As future teams struggle with NCAA limitations, those fans will face constant reminders of the real, unedited history that contributed to their present-day woes.

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Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.