Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Bissinger that is. He was Buzzy in prep school but he's dropped the diminuitive now that he's all grown up and he's just Buzz. (I was acquainted with him but didn't know him well. His real given name is Harry BTW.) He's very well known for documenting the culture of sports in the U.S. so Tweetie* has been having him on the program regularly to discuss the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State child rape mess.

Buzz is the veritable paradigm of repressed fury. I keep expecting his hair to burst into flames. And I can understand why, it's how a lot of people feel. Mr. Sandusky is of course entitled to due process, but the disposition of his personal case is not really the point in all this. Whatever the underlying facts, many people in positions of authority, with weighty responsibilities, failed to act appropriately and adequately when presented with credible information that required that they do whatever was necessary to be sure that children were safe. We already know this.

So what do I have to add to the maelstrom of mostly fairly obvious reflections? Just that if we view the sexual exploitation of children as a public health problem, we can think about etiology and epidemiology instead of just foaming at the mouth and having our hair burst into flames. Yes, moral condemnation and righteous fury are essential to reinforcing the social consensus, not to mention they're human nature, and I don't begrudge indulgence in them, but it's even more useful to understand why this happens and how it manages to continue.

I'm not a psychologist so I can't offer any particular expertise in the psychological roots of sexual attraction to children or sexually exploitative behavior. I do know that there is a risk of people who are abused as children becoming abusive themselves, although most of course react in the opposite way and become fiercely angry toward people who do this. (Joshua Komisarjevsky, who was recently sentenced to death in Connecticut, put on a defense based on his having been repeatedly sexually assaulted as a child. It didn't convince the jury but there is undoubtedly something to it.) While many children are resilient and overcome such traumas, others do not and, in one way or another, the consequences ripple out through society and down through time, unto generations. So preventing one incident can have multiplying benefits, while failure is a catastrophe that can extend far beyond a single child.

What is uniquely interesting in the Penn State case, as in the case of the Catholic church, is the sociological dimension. Whatever the reason that many priests and (allegedly) Jerry Sandusky engaged in this behavior, powerful cultural forces protected them. The church is an insular society unto itself, whose transcendent value is institutional aggrandizement. Football is a more complicated phenomenon. Yes, there are little subsocieties of team and university, but they are much more fluid and diffuse than the church -- people come and go, with the exception of Joe Paterno Penn State football and Pennsylvania State University are not life-long commitments, nor are they singular identities. And this scandal leaked well beyond those two institutions to include not only the campus police but also the police of the town of State College, apparently (from what we are starting to hear) a high school principal, charity executives and social workers, and probably many other people who were overawed by the charisma of the football team. Unlike the bishops, they weren't part of the institution they were protecting.

So this story also has resonance pertaining to the role of athletes and sports in our society. Athletes have an expectation of entitlement, which they get from the same wellspring as coach Sandusky. Sports are a public spectacle that stands for accomplishment and virtue. That symbolism largely obscures the reality that what you are watching and passionately adoring is just a bunch of ordinary, flawed people who happen to be skilled at a fundamentally useless enterprise. Many sports, including football, in fact institutionalize and glorify violence, which seems a wrong thing to worship, although I grant it is fun and exciting. (I wrestled in college -- there's nothing more essentially violent than that. The whole object is to physically force your will on the opponent.) But we are strongly committed to the illusion and just can't stand to shatter it.

*For those who are not aware of all Internet traditions, that's Chris Matthews. Some people feel he resembles the cartoon canary. (I tawt I taw a puddy tat!)

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