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Assassins of the spirit
Note: The following is another in a series of columns on subjects of a philosophical, ethical or practical nature by a Schuyler County resident who prefers to go by the nom de plume of A. Moralis -- a reference to what the writer sees as the lack of a moral compass in the world during this rapidly changing Age of the Internet.
By A. Moralis
I felt a chill this morning as I headed out for my morning walk, and it wasn’t from that pesky north wind that this time of year provides.
No, it was a chill of disenchantment, disregard, and dismay.
The disenchantment came from an ongoing news story -- a dominating news story -- regarding a hugely successful coach and his college football program. At every turn, news sources, neighbors, and students have been talking about it, but it has left me to wonder one thing about the whole mess: Why? Why did a group of highly visible, influential, and powerful men condone the selfish acts of one of their own, and turn their backs on those who were dependent, innocent, and defenseless?
The disregard comes from adults who can’t be bothered to notify protective agencies about abuse -- whether it's of a sexual nature or otherwise. For abuse comes in many stripes; it is brought to us by bullyism, and at the heart of bullyism is cowardice, served by the weak and the skewed.
The fact that the current case -- at Penn State -- allegedly involved an assistant coach as malefactor and other coaches as (by extension) silent associates is not, I fear, an aberration. While bullyism can rear up in any setting -- office, school or home -- it is on the athletic fields where the table is all too often set for abuse.
That is because the culture of athletics in America encourages -- or at the very least condones -- an aggressive nature on the part of coaches toward players that sometimes crosses the line into abuse. This is true at the college level (tolerated because of the money involved for universities) and the high school level (condoned on occasion because, ostensibly, a program at that level provides an opportunity for athletes to take an all-important step toward college and the pros and serious money. However, in our county, advancement by an athlete to a Division 1 university nationally ranked in sports will rarely occur, and (beyond that) ascension to a professional sports career is improbable at best.)
As for the current newsworthy situation: It is human nature to protect No. 1 -- to build a foundation of security and entitlement that can resist outside forces that challenge it. That foundation can be a complex one built on success and empowerment and loyalties -- a combustible mix, as we see with Penn State. It can also be a foundation with serious flaws that can be brought tumbling down when properly challenged. It shares that trait, that tendency, with the individual bully. If enough counter-force is brought to bear against it, it just might -- and sometimes does -- crumble.
Unfortunately, physical actuality -- the successful exercise of that counterforce -- is not often as easy as theory. How does an individual, no matter how wronged, get justice when going up against an established program of shadowy motives and shadowy faces? It is, alas, also human nature to retreat when apparently overmatched. (That said, I've heard of rare cases involving determined parents successfully pleading verbal abuse against a coach -- proving exceptions to the rule.)
That Penn State's program has gone tumbling is a combination of circumstance -- the result of tenacity on the part of law enforcement, a graphic grand jury report, and the viral nature of the subject when it hit the Internet and the airways. Media can be annoying, but they are also powerful -- in this case a force superior to the foundation of cards that Penn State's athletic program proved to be.
The dismay is mine—brought on by both circumstances: disenchantment and disregard.
I hate to see a scandal like that at Penn State because it shows a failure in authority figures, in an established program held until now in high regard. It shows that even the most respected of our institutions can attract a predator who, if challenged, is protected by the system -- until the proper forces can be allied against him. And, in this case, it brought tumbling from a pedestal a coach of renown who initially did do something, but then fell flat on the follow-through.
Was he too busy to be bothered with something he felt would never come to light? Did he not realize its severity? Were those above him too busy to be bothered? Perhaps -- and this is supposition, since Penn State has circled the wagons for a flood of expected lawsuits -- the power elite were so horrified by the evidence that one of their own (the assistant in question) was severely flawed that they were paralyzed by the prospect of shining light upon him.
Or maybe they, the leaders, just didn't possess the requisite character to perform the right actions at the right time -- which is to say at the time the alleged crimes were committed.
We're all judging this case. The court of public opinion has weighed in, mostly with gasps of despair. The outcome will not be left to us, of course; the legal arena is the next stop.
But what resonates is this: As high a profile as this case has assumed, how many lesser cases -- which is to say cases of abuse on a smaller stage, with less at stake, and thus with less public interest, or none at all -- exist? How many cases of abuse have occurred in our own communities? It would be naive to think that they haven't.
It would be naive to think that abuse of various stripes doesn't exist throughout this country, in communities like ours, in far too many homes, far too many workplaces, far too many schools ... and on far too many athletic fields.
It is incumbent on public servants -- elected and appointed officials, nurses, doctors, and other health care workers -- to be on the lookout for abuses, and to report them to authorities, and then follow through. But it should go beyond that, to all of us. How many of us would, if confronted with the scene of a 10-year-old boy being sexually abused by an adult (as is allegedly the case at Penn State), ignore it? How many of us would simply pass it on to a superior and let that salve our conscience -- even if clearly, afterward, nothing outwardly was done to address the problem? Whistle-blower legislation is designed to protect those who do report such cases -- what Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary did years ago while a graduate assistant -- but is it enough? Judging from the Penn State case, I'm thinking not, for the abuse continued.
There is the idealist in me that says we should all be reponsible for one another, although practicality dictates that the ideal is best served within the framework of the workplace or the family. If something amiss is occurring there, is there any reasonable excuse for not correcting it -- given you aren't the perpetrator? (Abusers are not self-corrective. They need to be confronted. But there is a nagging concern, too, that when a child reports an uncomfortable -- or worse -- situation, there are those among us who don't listen; who don't pay attention to changes in the child's behavior, let alone seek the cause.)
Situations often appear to be black and white -- a smiling, happy family; a productive workplace; a sports team producing more victories than losses and perhaps even a championship -- but unfortunately they rarely are. There are unseen stresses, strains and compromises ... and on occasion resultant abuses. When there are whispers of wrongdoing -- or for that matter outright examples -- who among us is willing to stand up and confront, protect? There are some, for sure; and I would hope there are many.
But there are others who choose to deny, obfuscate, make excuses, or do nothing at all -- in essence permit and even encourage by silence the continuation of abuse.
Which one are you?
Previous A. Moralis columns:
The first one is here.
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