None for the record books
The NCAA found Oklahoma guilty this week, not of a crime, but of a "failure to monitor" its players' employment at a car dealership, with three of them being paid for work they didn't do. The school self-reported the violations, so it received a relatively lenient penalty: four lost scholarships, two extra years of probation, and the vacation of all eight wins from the 2005 season.
The first two are all well and good, but the erasure of history is troublesome on a few levels. For one thing, retroactively changing game results from two years ago has its limits as a deterrent to bad behavior. Yes, it's a blow to school pride, but it doesn't have any real effect on a team's present ability to compete, which is what ultimately brings in the big revenue and national attention.
Second, it's silly to ask everyone to forget that those games ever happened. The Sooners won eight games on the field two years ago, and newspaper archives forevermore will prove it. Vacation of wins can lead to some comically twisted record books. In this case, the official account is now that Oklahoma went only 0-4 and then received a Holiday Bowl payout despite never officially playing in a bowl. (Equally absurd is the post-forfeit version of Alabama's 1993 season, wherein the Crimson Tide, 9-3-1 on the gridiron, officially went 0-11, made it to the SEC title game, and then won the Gator Bowl.)
Third, stripping the 2005 Sooners team of its wins punishes the vast majority of Oklahoma players who were not found to have done anything wrong. That's not to say that it's never OK to reverse an athletic event's outcome due to rule-breaking, of course. If a player uses performance-enhancing drugs or shaves points, for example, that has a clear causal connection to victory or the margin thereof, and it's only right to overturn the outcome. But when, as in the Oklahoma case, the off-field actions aren't directly tied to on-field performance, it's a tougher call to wipe out a team's achievements when most of the athletes whose play won the games did nothing wrong.
Plenty of more effective deterrents exist. Large scholarship cuts have a huge impact on a program's finances and success, and lengthy probation leaves violating schools in the danger zone for even more serious penalties for years to come. Fines and postseason bans also are effective monetary penalties, and the death penalty is still an option in the most egregious cases.
The NCAA has more than enough power to make schools suffer in the present and future for rules violations. It should be judicious in extending that power to the past, too.