Thursday, November 10, 2011

College football, the Catholic church, same difference

So, it's not really a secret that I like college football. I mean, I really like college football. And I feel conflicted about that.

On the one hand, there's my childhood experience of college football. When I was a kid, college football was a central part of the transition from summer to fall each year. Most Saturdays would find me in Husky Stadium with my dad and uncle and siblings and cousins (or getting up insanely early and driving to Eugene or Corvallis or Pullman for away games). We'd meet up late morning at my cousins' house, stuff our pockets with snacks, and head toward the stadium with the crowd of other fans heading down the Burke-Gilman trail. We would walk through the fall leaves or gray drizzle, carrying piles of umbrellas, ponchos, hats, mittens, and my dad's famous solution to the rain getting your jeans and shoes wet - a long roll of clear plastic to unroll over the whole row of laps, resulting in many admonitions from the adults to sit still already, you're knocking the plastic on the ground. Needless to say this made The Wave a little problematic. During away games that were too far to drive to, we collected at whichever house had the best football-watching tv at the time and watched the game there. Most Christmas vacations there was a bowl game to go to. We all knew the vocabulary, strategy, roster, conference politics, etc and could discuss them fluently. So yeah, a central part of my childhood that involved a lot of bonding and fond memories.

On the other hand, there's the culture of college football. And football in general. And club sports in general. Case in point: Penn State. First, you have a hierarchical structure where careers ride on wins and losses and revenue brought in. For a graduate assistant coach, being a whistle blower is a career-ending move. The very machinery that you are hitching your career wagon to will grind you up in a heartbeat if you buck the system and step outside the clear but implicit code of (mis)conduct. Then there's the reluctance of the administration to do a goddamn thing to prevent serious ethical breaches and abuses as long as the program is doing what the program is supposed to do - win games and make money. After all, involving the police and bringing charges against people is really bad PR. Better to sweep it all under the rug. What's the rape of a few 10 year-olds when $68 million a year is at stake? Collateral damage.

And so I distrust college football, because it's a patriarchal institution driven by a warped set of values, which isolates itself in order to maintain the fucked up culture that results from these values, and somehow manages to maintain its privileged status in spite of repeated instances of misconduct and abuse. And what does this all remind us of? The Catholic church, perhaps?

Right. You could take that sentence and replace "college football" with "the church" and it would perfectly capture the issue. Like this:
I distrust the church,* because it's a patriarchal institution driven by a warped set of values, which isolates itself in order to maintain the fucked up culture that results from these values, and somehow manages to maintain its privileged status in spite of repeated instances of misconduct and abuse.
Note that I say "the church" here instead of "the Catholic church" because I think the abuses rampant in the Catholic church are just the most widespread and visible abuses of their kind. You might remember that the church I grew up in, which was decidedly not Catholic, was a great environment for abuse as well. Obviously the values that drive the institution and allow for the abuses are different, but the same dynamic is at play.

So I think that isolating a couple of scapegoats at Penn State and publicly excoriating them is kind of a joke. Way too little; way too late. Until we take a step back and really examine the culture and practices of the institution, we can expect to see one instance of misconduct after another. Nothing will change. Patriarchal, hierarchical institutions will always choose to sacrifice individuals and engage in self-protective behavior to preserve their own culture and practices, and maintain their privileged status. That's the way it works. That’s what it means to be a patriarchal institution. What did we expect already?

*Of course it's true that not all churches fit this description, and in fact there are some churches that make an effort to prioritize the needs of individuals over that of the institution. But I still think this is the exception rather than the rule. Generally speaking, the institutional nature of a church results in a tendency to pursue practices that are protective of the institution first, even if this comes at a cost to individual members.


  1. Serendipity11/10/2011

    It boggles the mind why students at Penn are protesting. They should be demanding that more coaches and administrators (every person who knew about the abuse and did nothing) get fired instead of complaining about Paterno.

    I have a 10 year-old brother, so maybe that changes the way I see it.

  2. Agreed.

    But I don't think you should have to have a 10 year-old brother to get this. I don't think men should have to have a sister or girlfriend or wife to care about rape. Of course it brings it home and makes it more concrete to you when you do have a person similar to the victims in your life, but that shouldn't be necessary. Isn't there such a thing as generalized compassion?

  3. Michael11/10/2011

    Oh, but the Nebraska game. They're firing the coach right before the Nebraska game! That makes it worth turning over vans and smashing windows.

  4. Exactly.

    Fuck the Nebraska game. I really wanted my team to beat Nebraska this year too, but if there had been some kind of abuse scandal going on I would have said fire anyone who knew about it but did nothing, and forfeit the game if you have to. Bow out of the BCS for the year. Whatever. In what worldview does winning a game or getting into the right bowl game possibly trump a long-standing history of abuse and cover-up?

  5. But is it true that this is a feature of institutions in general, or do we just act this way in our institutions because that's our cultural habit?

  6. Anonymous11/11/2011

    The students are angry because they don't think the board handled the Paterno thing correctly. The idea is that they're making him a scapegoat while many other people knew just as much as he did, and he was going to retire at the end of the season anyway. That still reflects some messed up values, but I don't think it's quite as extreme as them choosing to win a game over protecting the boys.