Almost as soon as Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was identified, there appeared a photo of the former boxer with a bruise under his right eye and a grin on his face.
The photo was taken after Tsarnaev won the heavyweight division of the New England Golden Gloves Tournament in 2010. He twice won the trophy named for former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano.
Bob Russo, the Executive Director of New England Golden Gloves, wishes it were otherwise.
“Just to have his name mentioned with us is something that’s obviously a negative thing,” he said.
Bob Russo was horrified by the bombing. Then when he and his associates learned one of the suspects was a former Golden Gloves winner, they began discussions about removing Tsarnaev’s name from their record books, concerned that it would tarnish their institution.
“The Golden Gloves does such good work for immigrants like him, and many young people who are less fortunate, and through the Golden Gloves and amateur boxing they find a way and learn a good life style,” he said.
Bob Russo understands that erasing Tsarnaev’s name from their record books will not change history. Still, the impulse to do something persists.
“It’s just a way to show our disdain for someone who would do such a horrific thing,” he said.
Northwestern University sociology professor Gary Alan Fine, who has studied how societies rewrite the histories of what he terms “difficult reputations,” joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Professor Fine, can changing the record book actually do anything to change Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s association with the Golden Gloves?
GAF: Well I think in the long run it can because if we, in George Orwell sense, change history, we eventually forget it. Most of us have positive qualities, successes, and negative qualities, or failures, and what we as a society need to do is to put these in the proper kind of balance. So someone who commits and act of terrorism, or bombing, that clearly would outweigh the success in the boxing ring, but it shouldn’t eliminate it.
BL: Victories, of course, are vacated all the time, usually because the winner is caught cheating in some way. Is there a difference in your mind between that and changing the record book because the athlete later committed a crime?
GAF: Well clearly if a person breaks a rule that changes the fairness of the event. The question is was the Golden Gloves event, in which this young man won, was that a fairly organized event? Did he truly win?
BL: You mentioned the Orwellian nature of all this, and you also made that comparison in the New York Times a little less than a year ago after 14 seasons of Penn State victories were vacated. Former coach Joe Paterno was suddenly no longer the winningest coach in Division I history. Run through that argument again for us, please.
GAF: Well I felt at the time, and I feel today, that the NCAA made a mistake in terms of overturning the result of football games that were played on the field fairly, legitimately — taking the success away from the student-athletes, taking the success away even from Coach Paterno, who, in terms of those games, did nothing wrong. Now that is not to say that he did nothing wrong in his role at Penn State or his role as football coach, but in terms of those particular things that were erased from public memory – or was attempted to be erased from public memory — I felt that that was an error.
BL: Just to take the opposing side for a moment, isn’t there a difference between the Orwellian attempt to change history by rewriting it for all sorts of devious reasons and the attempt to change sports record books for maybe higher motives?
GAF: Well someone has to make the determination of what is deviant and what is higher, and as Orwell would particularly reflect, what one person considers a higher motive, someone else considers a disreputable motive. Sometimes bad guys win, and we have an obligation to remember that, not to forget that they’re bad guys, not to forget their crimes, but to remember the totality of their actions.
BL: I want to just ask you one more question. What would you say to Bob Russo, the guy who’s having to make this decision on the basis of being the head of the New England Golden Gloves Tournament, where he’s got Rocky Marciano’s brother on one side saying, “Hey, we don’t want The Rock associated with this guy in any way, shape, or form.” What would you say to Mr. Russo?
GAF: Well I would say that sports depend on a set of rules. In this case my understanding was that the tournament was held fairly. It had a legitimate winner. It doesn’t mean we have to like all of the winners. We don’t, certainly don’t, like all of the winners in politics. Remember his actions, remember the bombing, remember that he was willing to kill innocent civilians. Of course remember that. Don’t erase that. But don’t erase the fact that he won the Golden Gloves tournament either.