Monday, July 16, 2018

Bracketed Morality Extends Beyond Sports: Thoughts on Bill Cosby and Cardinal McCarrick

In the latest issue of Notre Dame Magazine, I learned that the sitcom star and comedian Bill Cosby is the first person in the University's 176-year history to have their honorary degree rescinded. Notre Dame President, Father John Jenkins, CSC issued a statement on April 28, 2018 that stated: 
“As a result of his conviction today on three felony charges in a sexual assault, the University of Notre Dame has rescinded the honorary degree awarded to Bill Cosby in 1990. While certainly troubled by serious, public accusations made by multiple women against him, the University elected to wait until due process had been afforded the accused, and a verdict delivered, before rescinding the honor."
After reading the headlines of today's New York Times, however, Notre Dame may need to do it again. Theodore Cardinal McCarrick was awarded an honorary degree in 2008.

James Martin SJ offers important insights in his article, Cardinal McCarrick, seminarians and abuse: how could this happen? Please read. One answer, among several, to this critical question is simple: sin.
After a three year hiatus, I will return to teaching Ethics, Morality, and Justice, a required Religious Studies course for 11th-grade students at St. Ignatius. Part of me thinks I should change my approach to teaching a class that can be very heavy and demanding. For example, I have often felt emotionally spent when reading and writing, lecturing and addressing topics like genocide, late-term abortion, hunger and human trafficking. Rather than internalize the gravity of these decisions and what leads individuals to commit crimes against humanity/assaults on human dignity, I've thought about being more playful with the everyday moral decisions we make. What makes sin so alluring? Why is it just so easy to lie? After all, who's to say what's wrong—right? Move over Wormwood, you might have some competition?  I doubt it.

To make the topic of ethics and morality playful is one thing, and I think it's a good place to start. But not confronting or grappling, professing, challenging or asserting beliefs and teaching about it is another. Perhaps one of the greatest wins the devil has in our world today is our reluctance to even use the word "sin." 

As a Catholic, faith formation included teaching about sin, how to recognize it and its iterations. Yes, I learned what is a venial sin and a mortal sin. Said distinctions might make some people uncomfortable, and that's ok. I think sin should make us uncomfortable. Why?...because we are all capable of it....because it is real. ...because it causes division, pain and hurt. We see the effects of it every day both personally and socially. For example, morning, noon and night, I see human beings sleeping on the street. Many are completely strung out and lying in filth. This moral issue has not abated in the city of Saint Francis where I live; homelessness is growing. I hope and pray my heart never hardens against the men and women some call bums, street people or "the homeless"...but it might, and that scares me. To deny that sin has something to do with what I see and my feelings about it are delusional. Discussing and determining how to respond is important and challenging. This is what makes teaching ethics worthwhile.
In Sports and Spirituality, I build on what my students have learned in Ethics by introducing a concept called "bracketed morality." Defined in the article "What Role Does Ethics Play in Sports" Kirk Hanson and Matt Savage write,
Some argue for a "bracketed morality" within sports. This approach holds that sport and competition are set apart from real life, and occupy a realm where ethics and moral codes do not apply. Instead, some argue, sports serves as an outlet for our primal aggression and a selfish need for recognition and respect gained through the conquering of an opponent. In this view, aggression and victory are the only virtues. For example, a football player may be described as mean and nasty on the field, but kind and gentle in everyday life. His violent disposition on the field is not wrong because when he is playing the game he is part of an amoral reality that is dictated only by the principle of winning.
My students like to "play" with the idea of bracketed morality—there's something to it. We debate whether or not it is possible to be completely selfish on the court and selfless off of it. I ask, Do you know an athlete who is a gamesperon on the field, a sportsperson off of it? To what degree? Explain!

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara, where Hanson and Savage teach, responds:
An ethical approach to sport rejects this bracketed morality and honors the game and one's opponent through tough but fair play. This means understanding the rules and their importance in encouraging respect for your opponent, which pushes you to be your best.
To me, the concept of bracketed morality and Hanson and Savage's stance on it resonates beyond sports. I think it's true about sin. How? Sin in our lives is seldom confined to one area. Unfortunately, it tends to corrupt—over time, completely. For example, the same article that mentions the rescinding of Bill Cosby's honorary degree also mentioned a tragic and unfortunate incident that occurred at the time he earned the distinction.

Notre Dame Magazine writes, "Cosby’s appearance at the 1990 Commencement turned controversial when he berated Dean Brown ’92 for his grade-point average at a gathering of black graduates and their families, leaving the former football player in tears."

The South Bend Tribune adds: 

Earlier that day, Cosby spoke at a gathering on campus of about 300 people, mostly black graduates, their families and friends, according to South Bend Tribune and Associated Press coverage at the time. 
The 20-minute session ended with an angry confrontation after Cosby asked graduating student Dean Brown, a member of the football team, his grade-point average. When Brown replied that it was 2.5, Cosby criticized him and essentially said that wasn't good enough, others in attendance said at the time.
"We kept waiting for the punchline," Brown's mother, Saundra Brown, told The Tribune a few days later. "He was devastated," Saundra Brown said of her son. "I don't know if he (Cosby) realized the impact." 
Dean Brown grew up in a single-parent household in a Canton, Ohio, housing project. His father left when Dean was 5 and his mother suffered a stroke at age 25 that left her unable to work for eight years. 
Brown went on to a successful career in education before his death in 2012 at age 44, but the man known to his friends as “Big Happy” felt scarred for years after the Cosby incident.
Reading what Cosby said was appalling. Why would you do that? How can you treat someone you don't even know that way? And yet, I find those same questions can be asked of his other sin—assaulting women—only to the "nth degree." Why would you do that? ...How?... I should not be surprised that the same man who had caused so much hurt, damage and violence against women could and would extend that spirit, a bad one, to another human being. 

We must be careful, reflective and much more, sin does not subside. Unfortunately too many men—former seminarians and priests can speak to that truth about Cardinal McCarrick. I don't know enough about this man to know if he was virtuous, kind, and loving in every other area of his life. It's possible....but I have to wonder. Yuck.

What might be the biggest wrinkle in all of this, however, is that Christianity calls us to love even the sinner. You've heard it before: "hate the sin, love the sinner." Oh boy. I'll play with that idea another time. Tonight, I'm going to pray for the victims of sexual assault—those named and unnamed. I want to pray for the response of the soul of Dean Brown, his wife and family. I pray for those hurt by Cardinal McCarrick. 

Photo Credits
Cardinal McCarrick

Headlines at ND
Commencement at ND

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