"Is the elevation of sport into a religion a healthy thing for society?" That's the essential question Tom McMahon paces before us today. His thoughts have been triggered by the Penn State Football sexual abuse scandal. Tom suggests society's changing attitudes towards religion, and God, are linked into this shift. This commentary from Tom is likely to be uncomfortable for many different reasons.
Lessons for the Church from a sporting scandal?
Our news media has been alive with the famous Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and the alleged sexual abuse charges against his former assistant coach. I listen and I had a conversation with my wife, we hardly ever getting into discussion of politics, religion, or morality. I stated to Elaine that I felt due process of law was missing, a type of lynch mob reaction. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in ACTIVE LIBERTY speaks to the issue of Liberty of the Ancients -vs- Liberty of the Moderns. Ancient liberty failed to protect the individual from the tyranny of the majority.
I asked myself if this scandal and massive public response had anything to do with the theme I have been writing on for the past month in Catholica? I believe these covered-up 17-year-old accusations are directly linked to religion and a new approach to the Mystery called God. I will be wandering in and out of the sports world in particular. It is injustice to the person I have in mind. The Penn State scandal is part of evolutionary humankind. Humans are finally getting around to public discussion of real problems. We used to pride ourselves in America that one was innocent until proven guilty. NCR editor Tom Roberts thinks the Catholic Church could learn from the Penn State scandal; isn't the firing of priests who have been accused of abuse on the testimony of the victim the same process? Yes, a Grand Jury indicted — which is a directive to go to trial. From newspaper talk there is no need for a trial. The majority have spoken ... GUILTY! I think Jesus would approve the English tradition of no revelation of facts until a trial is over. Let peers who are presented with the facts make the judgment.
I have spoken with a handful of priests who fear the day that someone will accuse them of an inappropriate act twenty-five-years ago and the bishop will dump them without any recourse to justice. It has happened to some of my best friends and they were innocent. Msgr. Bucky O'Connor was accused and removed from his cathedral pastorate, abandoned after decades of faithful service. He hired a lawyer and private investigators who showed the accuser to be lying, never having been in contact with O'Connor. Cardinal Levada refused to accept John's innocence. What an amateur this performance from Levada yet he's good at shielding bishops, like the late G. Patrick Zimman who was as guilty as one can get .... and other hierarchy.
Sport is king in America...
Sport is king in America, particularly in the Fall when Prince Football reigns supreme. Big money, both clean and dirty, propels the action on the field. They make the game look squeaky clean with the vestal virgins dancing with their pom poms. Contact sports are brutal, evidence now clear that the human body has suffered much pain and punishment, a chief example the life-long damage to the brain by way of concussions. One never hears of the brain damage done to Mohamed Ali while one can see clearly his pitiful mental condition. John Muir advocated for the protection of the grandeur of the forest and the beauty of rock formations such as are found in Yosemite National Park. Thomas Berry teaches that humans need to see themselves as a species with the ability to destroy ourselves. Destruction of the human body to make money is criminal and sinful, that is sport is going in the wrong direction. Where is the church on morality? Oh yes, the bishops are busy on pelvic issues and anything that puts a burden on women.
Grandson Sebastian, age 6, is already a veteran of one season of touch football and he wore his spiffy black uniform to Grandma's house; Sebbie is 7 and Dominic, age 4, corrected Grandpa that Sebbie was not wearing his soccer uniform. From tot to professional the era of technology has manufactured apparel that can easily rival the colorful uniforms of the British military at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. I won't bother to bring up the scandalous salaries paid to skilled perhaps mentally immature athletes who run up and down a court to dump a ball into a basket. Enough said. Sport is king, and the king uses human bodies to make money. Might I go as far as saying sport is many people's god? Watch the money trail to see where peoples' values are. Sport has hooked the young generation and be extra careful when you speak critically of the demi-god heroes of sport.
Lest you think I am a cynic who doesn't watch I honestly admit that I can become a Saturday couch potato. Son Steve owns four expensive 49er tickets while son Tommy hasn't the slightest interest in any sport team. Steve when 9-years-old told his father at a 49er game that he preferred watching and analyzing rather than talking while Tommy, on a rainy day, refused to follow his 8-year-old soccer mates into a puddle of water. After the game Tommy asked mother and father if he had to play anymore and of course we let him depart from the team. Tommy skateboarded and snowboarded while Steve snow skied and was an excellent left handed pitcher on his high school varsity team. We have a silently split family. The last conversation my wife had with her mother, 91-year-old great grandmother Jennie was about a 49er victory. Sport has been king in our red-blooded American family and when Dad brings up the menacing epidemic of player brain concussions I get shunned ... and again I ask has this and Joe Paterno anything to do with religion or spirituality?
Let's go back to the Penn State and Joe Paterno revelations...
Within a few days sports writers became experts in sexual child abuse. Tom Roberts saw the opportunity to liken the Paterno case to the Catholic bishops as did other commentators. The president of Penn State was out as was Paterno. This was a replay of the Dallas Bishops' edict nabbing the guilty upon accusation. I see lynch mob reaction so contrary to the Christian ethic of not-guilty-until-given-a-fair-trial and all the facts are known. My first encounter with sexual misconduct accusations came in 1975 when working with an agency that counselled runaway kids. They came from New Orleans, Chicago and San Jose, immature youngsters who while smoking a cigarette refused the discipline of their parents, running away from the then accepted norms of society only to be apprehended by police while attempting to steal a candy bar because they were hungry. The girds had a readymade attack that grinded any therapy to a halt: "my father treated me inappropriately". This background has no interest to me here outside of merely saying when amateurs jump on the bandwagon to get the guilty I wryly smile knowing there is more to the matter than first meets the eye. In the Penn State case I wonder how far reaching was the cover-up for years and what now is quickly dismissed by players kneeling at mid-field to pray for the victims. What gets shoved out of sight as one guilty party is publicly apprehended?
Abandoning moral authority...
For the Bishops of America, and worldwide I sense that the word sex and sexual abuse are mere intellectual concepts, devoid of sensual feeling, the price paid for celibacy. When the Penn State players prayed for the abused I saw the same intellectual fiasco. Those who want a clean image of their god of sport make desperate effort to make lily-white the tip of an iceberg that has become an epidemic of sexual abuse in America. Hang the first culprit and the epidemic disappears ... And please, for the sake of reverence for the gods of sport and money, keep your mouth shut if you know more. What a joke to say Paterno should have called the police even in the 1990's. The "old boys club" of then and today has little to offer. Police are not the problem solvers.
I suggest that the American culture has become, or is fast becoming, immoral — headed in the wrong direction when it comes to human sexuality. We broke free in the 1960's when woman's lib burst forth. Outside of a few noble women I have witnessed I have seen little leadership in restoring women to an equal place in authority as I sense the Creator intended. This is part of the massive work that Thomas Berry speaks of in THE GREAT WORK. For years before I left ministry I wondered what church authority would do to me if I fell in love and created new life. Archbishop Joe McGucken in 1977 talked with me about my son Steve; his advice was for me to abandon the child and his mother. A priest at Mass can hold high the Gospel book, proclaiming "this is the word of the Lord" and "God is love" ... but look out one better not make the intellectual words reality!
The official Catholic Church, armed with fine papal encyclicals on social justice, has abandoned its moral authority role as it clings to medieval notions of women being property and the sinful enemy of males. That carp was workable in the monkish days of the 1200's. I see no sound authorities teaching morals in today's Roman church. (Yea, I know there is McBrien from Notre Dame who I read and admire and there is Joan Chittister and I am grateful for her femininity. I can't see a woman ordained in Trentan fashion and wearing black clothing and Roman collar as being advantageous to a church in the modern world.)
Tom McMahon, in San Jose, Ca.. It's 9.00 pm I'm about to be 83 and very tired having spent from 9am to 6pm at doctors and hospital with sick friends. I know the above is long and I ramble but I'm too tired to correct and minimize. 14Nov2011
What are your thoughts on this commentary?