Nov 102011

You’ve heard about the Sandusky affair, I presume.

A man, Jerry Sandusky, who used to be a high-ranking coach of the Pennsylvania State University football team, used a charity organization he founded to gain access to young boys whom he molested. One of these acts was witnessed in 2002 by a coaching assistant named Mike McQueary, who did not stop the act but reported it to head coach Joe Paterno, who did also did not stop Sandusky, but referred the assistant to administrators, who did not report Sandusky to the police but did forbid him from bringing young boys onto campus. Nine years later somebody actually arrested Sandusky, all this came out, and Joe Paterno was fired from the job he’d held for more than 40 years within a few days. Penn State students rioted in protest of the decision.

Think about that. In a world endangered by anthropogenic climate change, where the gulf between the rich and poor is widening even as the human population expands beyond the point where the world can support it, a bunch of entitled teens rioted because a football coach got fired for enabling a child molester.

College sports is out of control in this country. The coaches of the big revenue sports basketball and football are often paid more than the university Presidents who are nominally their bosses. Enormous sums of cash exchange hands on the backs of students who earn none of it. This, at least, is true of the programs that make money. Smaller schools, with weaker programs, bleed money trying to keep up with the big boys. Donors, who in a better world might give their money for more labs, more libraries, more community outreach programs, funnel their dollars into prime facilities that only benefit the scholarship athletes, and vast arenas that serve no pedagogical function whatsoever.

Nobody is happier to tell you how out of hand it is than the people of ESPN, where this evening you could hear Jim Plaschke, Tim Cowlishaw, Bomani Jones, and Kevin Blackistone railing about the loss of perspective on the shout-show Around the Horn. Nor should we ignore the sea of voices from the website of Sports Illustrated, or from the constellation of lesser cable channels, websites, and magazines. Like the Miami corruption case earlier in the year, the Sandusky affair has provided plenty of grist to churn between the millstones of the sports entertainment industry, driving countless page views and filling the many minutes between beer advertisements.

I have yet to see one of them ask whether he is at fault for all of this.

For have no doubt about it, while Joe Paterno’s mistake helped Sandusky escape once, what really enabled the man was football. Football gave him the opportunity to start the charity he would eventually use as a seraglio. Football, and the myth of the hero coach, convinced young mothers to let him “mentor” their sons, with disastrous results. Football opened those doors, and Jerry Sandusky walked in. And who gave college football that power?

The defense of the sports commentariat will be that they are only filling a demand. People want to hear about sports. They want analysis. They want total access. I would say in reply that the system feeds itself. ESPN creates the demand for sports news by hyping the contests, manipulating the storylines, and creating the perception that there’s always more to know. ESPN normalizes the excessive attention lavished on sports, as it must, because unless people pay more attention to sports than they ought, ESPN couldn’t exist.

Jerry Sandusky is an evil man. Joe Paterno did not do enough to stop him and deserved to be fired. So too does McQueary. College sports is out of control. I disagree with none of this. It would be nice, though, to hear men who are well-compensated to shout at each other about sports take a moment to ask whether they and their employer are part of the reason things got to be this way.

Our Emperor, the President

 politics  Comments Off on Our Emperor, the President
Nov 022011

President Obama has been signing quite a large number of executive orders recently, many of them intended to accomplish the same goals as bills that are presently languishing in the various houses of Congress. The orders broadly fall under the theme of “we can’t wait”, and I don’t have any serious complaint with the policies themselves. I am, however, pessimistic about what this means for our democracy.

Part of what I dislike is evident from the title. The spirit of the American system is for the President to handle the details of policy, with the policies themselves being set by Congress. The policies being altered here have been chosen specifically because Congress has failed to follow through on an expressed intention to act. For the President to enact pending legislation by executive fiat subverts the intent of our governmental system, and smacks of dictatorial authority. The past decade has seen an unprecedented concentration of power in the government broadly and the executive specifically. Part of Obama’s appeal was his promise to reverse this encroachment of executive authority, yet here he is embracing it.

Another reason to be pessimistic is that it seems we really can’t wait for Congress to act. The past few years have seen an escalating amount of incredibly stupid brinksmanship in the midst of crisis, driven by voices that refuse to accept any kind of compromise whatsoever. This behavior is driven by rhetoric and ethos that views winning control of the government as more important than actually governing. To this end various candidates for President and sitting legislators have engaged in ridiculous rhetoric like threatening the Fed not to take major steps to improve the economy prior to the next election. As economic growth stagnates, these men threaten a government agency not to do its job lest the country have too good an economy for them to defeat the sitting Democratic president. This attitude only makes sense if one desires power for oneself more than prosperity for others.

The executive orders threaten to enable this mindset. When the executive takes over the functions of the legislature, they are relieved of responsibility and therefore free to bicker as much as they like. Obama seemingly intends to put pressure on Republicans, and his choice to go over Congress’ head may play well with the electorate. However, it is likely to take pressure off of Congress because nobody will now be pressing their legislators on these matters, even if real legislation is necessary. Moreover, the increasing power of the executive promises to worsen the brinksmanship problem.

The “we can’t wait” campaign may be well-intentioned and certainly seems to be smart politics. All the same, I’m quite concerned that it represents a transfer of power from an ineffective legislature to an unchecked executive. Perhaps this does not strike Obama’s supporters as a serious problem. One wonders whether they would feel the same way if the President were Rick Perry.