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Thursday, November 10, 2011  

Blow the Whistle on that Analogy


And we might as well face it: college football is a kind of religion for many. Challenging the Pope of Penn State was unthinkable.

See also.

Granting with alacrity that no one has any business feeling sorry for Joe Pa, that his actions and inactions both reasonably established and highly probable are utterly deplorable, and that the students who rioted in State College last night were drunk idiots at best: is it really at all helpful to describe Joe Pa as the "Pope of Penn State"? Do we not cheapen the metaphor and the quality of our outrage by making so careless an association? Penn State is a big school and Paterno is as big as they get in the world of college football, but come on--there are a lot of football-factory schools, a lot of state universities that have a lot of pull in their environs, and a lot of unaccountable power out there. And we may just as well remember that the cultural and theological issues that were so often blamed for the church abuse crisis are mostly absent from a state university football program. There is no onerous ethic of celibacy, of course, and no dogmatic structure in need of defense. There are no keys to the kingdom and no sacramental power.

Indeed, the only thing in common, beyond vague talk about hierarchies and authority, is the immense importance of institutional survival and well-being. But here's the thing: there are a whole lot of institutions that are scared witless by stuff like this and prioritize survival above all else. I really appreciate Sullivan's zeal in this cause, and I share it. But surely he knew about college football, surely he'd heard of Joe Paterno at some point. Did it ever occur to Sullivan or anyone else to compare a football coach to a man styled as the Vicar of Christ until this week?

As I said yesterday, the most awful thing about this revelation, apart from the suffering of the victims themselves, is precisely how it gives the lie to the idea that this is somehow a distinctively Catholic Church issue. After the fact you can identify the structures with the Catholic Church if you want, but this only serves to make the problem more distant and exotic than it in fact is. There are a lot of college football programs, a lot of college towns, a lot of pro teams, a lot of companies that anchor a local economy, a lot of institutions that have a very, very powerful interest in making stories like this go away. And a whole lot of people depend on them for their livelihood and are thus quite susceptible to pressure, and a whole lot of influence gets brought to bear in their protection. You don't need 15th-century Italian court garb or extravagant claims of spiritual and temporal authority in order to know who writes your paychecks.

This is all the more reason to be rigorous in holding people like Joe Paterno accountable for their actions and inactions, even if they fall short of breaking the law. If a career as long and remarkable as his can be ended in a matter of days because of cowardice in the matter of protecting children from rape, then it can happen to anyone, and so much the better.

And while I don't really see the case, in the instance, for abolishing Penn State football (as if that will prevent such things from happening in the future) or even for cancelling the rest of the season, I do think you should all read Whet on why the U of C ended football in 1939 and how that decision has been vindicated. It might be best for everyone, or at least a bunch of schools, to take that leap all at once (or, as I've mused in the past, to spin off their football programs as semi-pro, for-profit teams that rent the colors and the stadiums, pay players, and otherwise avoid the pretense of functioning within a university).

UPDATE: I would rather bashfully direct your attention to Joe Posnanski's post on all of this. However you'd like to bicker over the details, he's right that the reactions have snowballed much faster than the facts have been established. Anger is a poor substitute for courage or righteousness, two things we would like to feel when we hear stories like this. One wonders how long it will be before we hear a call to shutter Penn State, raze State College to the ground, and salt the earth. Pedophilia is a crime committed by a very small but apparently persistent sliver of the human population. Institutions with incentives to sweep it and other potentially damaging misdeeds under various rugs are not going anywhere, and neither is the influence they can sometimes exert on all kinds of political and cultural actors. A cathartic howl of rage won't change that.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:53 PM
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