The law is bizarre. It’s amazing how often it tries to bend the truth, demanding that we close our eyes as it manipulates the record books and crafts a new reality. Technically speaking, Lance Armstrong never won seven Tour de France titles. Joe Paterno never won 409 games. Reggie Bush never won the Heisman.

Seriously? That’s not how history is written. I’m pretty sure I remember watching Lance Armstrong leave other riders in the dust, climbing to the top of the podium as a champion. I remember watching Joe Paterno win game after game, paving a legacy as one of the most successful college coaches of all time. I remember Reggie Bush dance around defenders, striking the Heisman pose in the end zone.

Forget the side-stories. Forget the scandals. If you concentrate on pure sports, on the coaching genius and athletic talent, the records can never be diminished.

Sure, the off-the-field stories do matter. Just like every other profession, sport is an industry with an ugly side. Some athletes do bad things — really bad things. Sex scandals, doping and money laundering carry punishments for a reason. There are panels of judges, advisory boards and strong-armed commissioners who carry out this duty — sometimes a little too severely.

We cringe at the barbarity of the Saints’ bounty-hunting scandal. We berate Penn State for glazing over the horrific Sandusky disgrace. It’s hard to forgive athletes who kill dogs, use drugs and cheat on their wives.

But that is not because they are athletes. Once the situation gets ugly, the sports part goes out the window. When we see our superstars participate in unethical behavior, there’s a public outcry for justice — not because they’re athletes, but because they’re human beings.

Coaches and athletes are held to the same standard as every person in every profession. We scoff at Barry Bonds and Bernie Madoff, Tiger Woods and Mark Sanford. The Penn State and USC scandals were not about football. Tiger’s scandal was not about golf. Even the steroid era was not about baseball.

It’s about us as a society as we mull over what to do with those who don’t comply with our principles and values. You’re not supposed to cheat or steal or play dirty. You’re not supposed to bribe recruits with money and wild parties. But it happens, and when people cross the line, it makes us look bad.

We become defensive, because sports are ultimately a reflection of us as a society. People love excitement and violence, cut in line, cheat on tests, break the law, act recklessly — and athletes do the same. With all the cameras flashing, it’s just a little harder for them to keep it under wraps.

Are you really surprised to hear that the Patriots were secretly taping an opponent’s defensive signals? Are you really shocked that baseball players took steroids to get bigger, stronger, faster and better? Did you really not think that there were bounty-hunting programs in the NFL?
We live in a violent, greedy, exploitative world. We’re all trying to get ahead, one way or another. Sports are no exception.

So if it’s not about sports, why do we punish the sport? Why, when USC gave benefits to Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo, did the NCAA wipe out the records on the field? Why, after Paterno helped cover up a monster, does Paterno’s stats page have a bunch of zeros in the win column?
Fine them, jail them, suspend them. But what’s done on the field is done. You can’t erase the fact that USC was the national champion in 2005. You can’t erase all the yards and touchdowns that Reggie Bush scored. You can’t erase the 111 games that Joe Paterno won since 1998.

Sure, some judge or commissioner can sit in his office and decide to wipe the record clean. It’s a technicality.

But in the end, the record prevails. You can’t erase your memory as easily as you can erase a number on the computer screen. The championship banner stays in your head.

Unethical athletes or coaches might be tarnished by bad reputations, but 100 years from now, they’ll also be remembered for all that they accomplished on the field.

Nick Fedyk is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. MORE THAN A GAME appears every Tuesday.

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