Calling Audibles Part XXII: Moral High Ground and Shifting Sands
“If the LORD does not build the house, the work of the builders is useless.” –Psalm 127: 1
The NCAA has taken a stand against the culture of football at Penn State. Their attempt to take the moral high ground against a culture they helped to create raises some big questions for me.
I heard the Chair of the Executive Committee of the NCAA (which, by the way, is not the Rainbow Coalition–check out the roster. By my count 20 of the 23 members are white and 19 of the 23 members are male) say that Chancellors and Presidents have gotten together and decided they have had enough. They decided that they needed to assert that “the Chancellors and Presidents are in charge.” I’d just like to remind you guys that you have been in charge. It’s under your watch that the culture of big time sports “too big to fail” and “too big to challenge” came of age.
The NCAA is seeking moral high ground from this horrible embodiment of cultural distortion that has been revealed at Penn State when they themselves have overseen this distortion’s steady construction through more than a century. In their own statement of who they are the NCAA says: “The NCAA was founded in 1906 to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitive athletics practices of the time.” Those practices at the time were a lack of safety and regulation. Football is still dangerous and it is probably even more exploitive than it was back in 1906 because the stakes are higher: the money is bigger and the stakeholders have much more to lose.
It’s hard to believe that the same institution who makes and enforces the rules which routinely deny athletes due process rights, privacy rights, and access to any of the billions of dollars of income that are generated from the sweat of their efforts, is now going to swoop in to make the world safer for victims of sexual violence. President Emmert referred several times to the NCAA’s desire to enforce a change in the culture at Penn State. I agree that the culture at Penn State needs to change. And I agree there are lots of things about the culture of big time football in general that need to change. I do not, however, see how Mr. Emmert and his Executive Committee think vacating wins, fining the school, and taking away scholarships is going to change a deeply entrenched culture that authorized systemic abuses of power. The NCAA is all about power–and using it the way they see fit.
The rhetoric of the NCAA scratches our collective itch in times like these: character, honor, honesty, good citizenship, and integrity are words we want to hear when we see the damage abuse and violence inflict. These words, however, mean nothing if they are not born from the solid ground of truth. I want to hear the truth. And as a survivor of sexual violence, I know that truth is where real change, real healing come from.
I want people in power to see and acknowledge that sexual violence is about power. What happened at Penn State is about abuse of power. And the problems with the NCAA are about abuse of power. Until our collective efforts begin to name and claim the real demon in our midst, these grandstanding moments where people with power and people in power say “this will not happen again” ring hollow to me. Power blindness prevents the builders from seeing their own role in propping up the problems they attempt to remedy. Universities have benefited from the structures of big time sports that the NCAA tried to distance itself from in their rhetoric about Penn State. The NCAA benefits from and maintenances those same structures.
Power and privilege and race and gender are potent pillars in the construction of cultures in which sexual violence thrives. The stealth ways that our collective concepts of masculinity and privilege and power help to prop each other up authorizes sexual violence. And for real cultural change this framework that we live in cannot be left unexamined, unacknowledged. I wonder if anyone can truly take in the level of cultural change that would be in order for us if we all really are committed to eradicating the sexual abuse of children. An institution like the NCAA would have to be willing to practice and model a whole new way of doing business if they want to be the vanguard of cultural change. The pillars that authorize abuse of power cannot be left in place if we really want new kinds of structures for human society to collectively inhabit.
Searching for moral high ground with the same framework in place is like trying to build a house on shifting sand. Building practices, building communities, building values from that shifting, sifting space is not going to work because the foundation is simply not stable. And the same current will bring it down again and again–the kind of power that washes over and through us all when we tell the truth about ourselves.
The outrage we feel about what happened at Penn State is important. The humility and boldness to truly want to make cultural change is, however, a different space than outrage. The audible here for the NCAA, for universities, and for any of us who want to say “never again” to what happened at Penn State is to begin a rebuilding project in which we collectively share responsibility for the conditions that gave rise to a culture of abuse. And we have to be ready for the real losses to sink in. Building a better framework for big time sports in university communities means moving to more solid ground together. Those who have been harmed by these systems of abuse must have agency and power in how we dismantle and rebuild. Maybe we’ll only find that new, more solid space for what can be when we let those who have known real harm lead the way.