Open Letter to NCAA and Penn State from a Catholic

Dear people,

I am not a sports fan, but perhaps this gives me the same kind of useful outsider’s perspective that non-Catholics had on the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church.

The similarities in the two situations are, I hope, obvious. One man sexually abuses children; another man, or men, enable the serial predation by choosing to preserve the reputation of the institution rather than report the behavior to the police and take other steps to stop the offender; until finally some brave soul takes the steps necessary to initiate an investigation, and it all comes out.

There is not just one locus of guilt here; there are two, or possibly three. The persons entrusted with institutional authority in the Catholic church have thus far failed miserably at going past the first locus and accepting responsibility for their culpability in enabling the ongoing abuse of children: instead, they have scapegoated the abusive priests, talking in shocked tones of the “filth” they are outraged to find in the priesthood, as if the abuse by priests could have happened on such a large scale without the effective complicity of bishops who chose to protect the church’s reputation rather than the church’s children; and without the effective complicity of everyone else who knew or suspected what was going on, but also chose, either to value reputation over children, or simply obedience to authority.

You have successfully avoided the first part of that trap, by correctly identifying Paterno’s complicity in enabling Sandusky’s abuse. But be careful you don’t succumb to the same pattern at only one remove. If you make Paterno the scapegoat for the entire coverup, then you’ll have missed the opportunity to confront the systemic problem — the systemic sin, in theological terms — that plagued Penn State and, by some accounts, the entire town in which it lives. If you scapegoat Paterno, then you provide a mechanism that the athletics program, the board of regents, the university community, the police department, the department of Child Protective Services, the teachers, the neighbors, everyone who knew or suspected that something might be wrong can use to absolve themselves of responsibility (“it was Paterno’s fault, he should have said something”) or simply to ignore their own culpability as they join in the communal outrage around Paterno.

You have an opportunity here to do better than the Catholic Church has done. And it’s easier for you, because even the most devout football fans, at the end of the day, have to admit that football is only a game.

You have an opportunity here. Don’t blow it.

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4 Responses to Open Letter to NCAA and Penn State from a Catholic

  1. There is an excellent moral analysis of the situation by Tom Rosshirt – very well worth reading. (H/T Michael Sean Winters).

  2. Andrew says:

    Gaudete: There’s a nice analysis here as well, which makes the point that Paterno’s laudable ambition to run (and be seen to run) a clean football program that didn’t skirt the rules about recruitment, etc. made him more vulnerable to temptation than lesser goals would have done. Here’s a quote:
    “A man who breaks some rules in order to win a few more football games is likely to understand himself to be nothing more exalted than a hustler on the make. By contrast, a man who talks himself into believing that he is running a uniquely virtuous Grand Experiment, rather than just another successful college football program that mostly avoids the most egregious forms of cheating, is far more likely to develop the delusion that he’s some sort of role model for his peers, or even a quasi-spiritual leader of our youth.” C.S. Lewis discusses the risks of this kind of spiritual pride, as well.

    In fiction this phenomenon is shown in one of my favorite scenes from Deep Space Nine – a highly respected spiritual leader, Kai Winn, comes to the realization that she has been going down the wrong path for a long time. She’s horrified, and determined to do what it takes to redeem herself. But, of course, the first step ought to be to resign her position – and over the course of a conversation, she convinces herself, that of course she can do more good by retaining her position and covering up her previous misdeeds than by humbling herself.

    • But, of course, the first step ought to be to resign her position – and over the course of a conversation, she convinces herself, that of course she can do more good by retaining her position and covering up her previous misdeeds than by humbling herself.

      ….which was exactly Cardinal Law’s line. :sigh:

      Oh, not quite actually – his line was that he could do more good by retaining his position and fixing the mess that had erupted on his watch.

      He was eventually forced to resign (although not humbled, gr)… but that just leapt to mind when I read your comment.

      That spiritual pride in the earlier part of your comment sounds like, for example, something to which Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, succumbed.

  3. So what do people think of the penalty that was imposed?

    I think they may have gotten it just about right. The ban from bowl games I thought was particularly good as a means of directing the penalty at the program while minimizing the effect on the individual student athletes.

    In one of the “reaction” interviews, I heard a woman say something to the effect of, This is not fair. It penalizes people who weren’t involved at all, because the prestige of the football program benefits other departments so they will be hurt. To which my response was, Yes, it does, and that is exactly the point: because it was a desire to avoid that loss of prestige in the first place that led to the coverup.

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