Do Sports Records Really Tell It like It Was?

Article excerpt

'The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it," Oscar Wilde once wrote. Even in the world of sports, there is support for the witty Dubliner's aphorism.

Sports revisionists have rarely run into controversy as long as they focused on lesser-known marks of bygone athletes. But the recent Nykesha Sales episode at the University of Connecticut raised a few questions. When and why should records be changed. And by whom?

Sales is an All-American basketball player at Connecticut who is often described as unselfish and brilliant. She was one point short of a school scoring record when an injury ended her season with one regular season game left in her college career. Since she was so well liked, her teammates and opponents felt Sales should have the record. Such gestures are not unprecedented. An injured Lou Gehrig once preserved his consecutive games streak when given a courtesy at-bat. He quickly left from his 1,427th game and returned to his hotel to recuperate. The Sales incident, however, was met with an outcry. The integrity of women's basketball was questioned in newspaper and TV reports. It became a story that could not be ignored. Then, acting on a tip, ESPN's magazine reviewed television footage of an earlier game and discovered that Sales was wrongly credited with two points someone else scored. Hence, the magazine said, Sales was still one point short of a record. "Whenever there is a conflict, we allow the two contesting teams to resolve the dispute," says Jim Wright, director of statistics at the National Collegiate Athletic Association. In the Sales case, it was UConn and Seton Hall University, the host. Representatives of both schools said they were happy with the scoring, and Sales got to keep the record. "We only get involved when a national record is involved," says Wright. "And only when there is substantial and irrefutable evidence." An athlete's career is often weighed in terms of statistical milestones. The availability of technology such as slow-motion television replays and computer databases make it possible to track these more closely than before. Last week, the UCLA-Alabama women's basketball game was analyzed, frame by frame, to determine how long the timekeeper took to restart the clock in the waning seconds of Alabama's 75-74 victory. "That's absurd," says Gary Johnson, an NCAA statistician of the excessive scrutiny. "Everybody is human." Recordkeepers are quick to point out that referees and timekeepers must make many judgement calls. There are more than 900 colleges in the US and the ability of statisticians is bound to vary widely. …