Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Crass Calculus


He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.
- Martin Luther King, Jr.

I never regretted walking away from sports. I missed things. I missed people, and places, and I missed the void that they filled in my life. I missed the stories, but I never regretted walking away from a world that I felt the first rumblings of betrayal from nearly fifteen years ago. I sat in the press box at Michigan Stadium, with people I cared very deeply for, in spite of the short amount of time we had known each other. They were good people. The Aimee and Kevins, the Jenns, and the Naylas and Marcs, the BJs and Bruces...and the gifts of friendship that fell in my lap just because I walked into the Hartwig Building almost every day...the Sues and Taras, Gregs and Schneidzes (that feels hilarious to type), and the Betzies and Helens and Weisses. In a tiny, crowded office, at the back of a tiny, crowded second floor of a tiny crowded building, I found friendship with strangers and all because of at least one common denominator...sports. I miss that, but at a certain point the sporting world that I had loved, and worshipped, and idealized started to dissolve...ego and arrogance, self-importance and self-preservation...the weight of business becoming an anchor to my idealism. Over the twenty-something years of my young life I had successfully idealized sports to the point that it would nearly impossible for them not to eventually disappoint. Never venture to meet your heroes, someone once said. Get close enough to something you idealize and you'll surely be disappointed.

I moved on to bigger (in my own mind) and better things. I learned how to help people and I found my place doing just that. I stumbled headlong from a press box into a Boys and Girls Club gymnasium, and I discovered the truth in the notion of finding your destiny. I was never meant to work in a press box. I would never have expected that I'd work on street corners and alleys, and in gyms and YMCAs. I thought I'd work in stadiums. Now I'm happy to work in the crowded hallways of high schools. I found my place, but I do miss sports. I don't regret leaving them behind, but I miss them. I don't bemoan sidestepping the ugly arrogance of sidelines and press boxes.

As the weekend passed and the week began, and more and more came out of State College about the Penn State Football scandal...a tsunami of unexpected and unbelievable accusations and events, I felt the sad rush of sickness that accompanies such things, but much worse, I felt an uncomfortably intimate understanding of the business of college football. If you think that the scope of the Penn State scandal is small then you're mistaken. It's not. It's huge. If you think that the victims of the alleged abuse didn't rank second in consideration to the monster, in this case literally, that is Penn State football then you'd be mistaken. Its the boldest indictment of our sporting culture since anyone can remember. In it's every twist and turn there are people that matter more than other people, and that's just not the truth. There are ideas and belief systems worth upholding at any price, and that's just not right.

I work with young men and women who have survived similar abuses and the failures of our adult systems are astonishing, perhaps even harder to comprehend on some levels than the human failures of their abusers. We rarely take care of one another. We seldom place others first. It's that very reason why I have a job, and why I regularly deflect the compliments I so randomly receive. I do nothing out of the ordinary save honor myself as a human being in direct kinship with other human beings. There is no greater responsibility or success than that. We're all capable of doing the right thing every time we are faced with our own expense and in honor of ourselves and others. The press box I left fifteen years ago was not propped up by those ideals. It often pretended to be, but it wasn't. I have good friendships from those years, and know good, no, I know great people, because of the string and colored cardboard dangling press passes that bound us all together, but institutionally, as a culture, I leave no love behind. As a brand, and as an ideal, I love Michigan. As a social, cultural, and economical reality, I loathe it. The big business of sports has in large part ripped the very soul from the games themselves, and compromised even the seemingly best of people.

The Penn State scandal could have happened in Ann Arbor or anywhere. The reality of sports in this 21st century is that it believes itself to be (and is regularly reminded that it is) bigger than anything else...including helpless victims and moral obligation. I don't regret walking away from sports fifteen years ago. I only regret allowing myself to idealize them in such vacant terms for so long. The equations that allow sports to become bigger than justice and humanity are difficult to comprehend, and I was unwilling to study that math. In hindsight it's ironic. I was a terrible math student but I was able to do that crass calculus. In the end I passed that exam, and I never once looked back and wondered what would have happened had I chose not to walk away. It's funny, very few of those friends I met on those sidelines and in those press boxes, or in that tiny, crowded office remained in sports...very few. I guess they were just as good at that particular kind of math as I was.

What's happening at Penn State leaves me speechless, just not surprised. It's an awfully ugly culture that we embrace, and so willfully ignore it's shortcomings. It's easy to blame individuals and read all of the editorials and features demanding justice and admonishing the people involved, but very few of us will put the culture that allowed this and the billion other transgressions that occur regularly in our sporting world on trial. The system is beyond broken, and I am in large part beyond pulling back into the fold, at least not as blindly as I once was, marching to fight songs that glorified people and ideas that were realistically unwilling to fight for anything but their own survival and prosperity. It's a crass calculus indeed, and for once in my life I understood the math without any help. I don't regret walking away, I'm proud of it.


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