If I could build my own Mount Rushmore, there would be little doubt about the four faces I would have carved into the edifice.
Personal Courage and Strength
The first would be my dad. Howard Thompson was born with polio and spent two of his childhood years in a children’s hospital having multiple surgeries and learning to live and walk without a hip joint. In the 1930s, it was not as simple as getting a new one. His courage and strength were hard for me to see while I was growing up under his constant eye, but as I have had to summon these things in life many times since his death in 1988, I know how deep his inner resources were. And he left me some of that.
Another face on my Rushmore would be a choir director I met in 2004 when I joined the Turtle Creek Chorale. Tim Seelig, who now is the artistic director for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, was a great source of moral encouragement who insisted on artistic perfection. His challenging me to get out of my shell and perform a comedy skit in our sold-out holiday concerts pushed me to an edge of daring and courage that I had not experienced.
“The Ballarinos,” the aforementioned comedy skit, consisted of the biggest guys in the chorale. We dressed as ballerinas with tutus, ballet slippers, and the whole nine yards, and we danced to the tune of Tchaikowsky’s “Sugar Plum Fairies,” from The Nutcracker. I should mention the tune was played on tubas, which, of course, emphasized our awkwardness as fat guys trying to dance like ballerinas. These performances were bring-the-house-down moments, and it is one of my favorite memories. Seelig is on my Rushmore because no one has pushed me to the creative edge as far as he did.
The other two faces on my Rushmore would be two specific coaches. I was an athlete from the first time I had the opportunity to join a competitive team of any sort, and coaches were like fathers to me.
In 1966, I met Charles Kidwell. He was my junior high football coach, and I was a small guy with little chance of playing in a game. Junior high was the first time the boys would have to share team showers and dress/undress in front of each other. Knowing how sensitive this was, coach Kidwell handled this with sensitivity, humor, and dignity. We sat on the back steps of the gym of Dewitt Perry Junior High, and he showed us what a jock strap looked like, holding it up to us and saying something about not wanting to see any of us putting it on our heads because it was not a nose guard as some older boys would tell us. We figured it out.
Coach Kidwell followed our seventh grade team all the way up through high school as he was promoted every year that we moved to the next grade. Over the six years I played for him, he was a mentor and someone I trusted with my life. And, he never, in any sort of way, violated that trust.
In 1972, I met the head coach of the small college, Howard Payne University, where I would play on a football scholarship. The coach was Dean Slayton. Unlike some guys on the team, I liked his hard-nosed tactics, his insistence on perfection, and his incredible ability to teach proper technique. I played defensive end, and coach Slayton was my position coach. He had a chiseled, muscular appearance, a deep voice, and he was as mean as hell.
I was a student coach one year during my recovery from a torn ACL, and he asked me to coach the defensive ends so he could take better care of his duties as head coach of the entire team. The confidence he placed in me was a badge of accomplishment I have always valued. Coach Slayton did not become my mentor by kindness but by his mental toughness and straight talk. Yes, I would have walked the plank for him, and still would, though I have not had any contact with him since 1977.
What Went Wrong at Penn State?
There have been many expressions of blinding outrage and flaming rhetoric since the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State has come to light. Any boy who has grown up under the influence of coaches knows how easy it is to be manipulated by those who possess charisma and public respect. The most natural thing in the world for a child to think is that if something feels wrong, or makes him feel uncomfortable, it is he, the child, who must be wrong.
In the child’s eyes, there is no way the coach could be wrong. It may feel awkward, and it may drum up fear and sadness, but it is virtually impossible for a child to see a scenario in which his coach is wrong. It is easier and, to the child at least, it makes more sense to conform to the expectations of the larger-than-life coach.
The brotherhood of team sports is perhaps the most appealing aspect of it. Almost ganglike in its initiation rites, a child learns that his chances of survival among his peers depend upon his willingness to put himself aside for the sake of the team. It is one of the earliest lessons of team sports. Charismatic coaches form a trust with their players that stretch and overlap into parental paradigms that become impossible for a young boy to navigate when something goes awry.
The tragedies of betraying this trust are not the futures of institutions and teams. Rather, the consequence visited upon the child victims is a lifelong, firmly entrenched, blurring of the lines between proper, healthy relationships, and destructive, dysfunctional, and deadly ones. These are the real tragedies.
The institutional failure of Penn State is not just the child sexual abuse itself since it occurs everywhere from churches to other boys organizations. The failure of Penn State is its institutional tolerance of secrecy, hero worship, and its perpetration of the myth that says athletic success, when wrapped in terms like “honor” and “community,” becomes the narcissistic image in which it believes and upon which it acts every day. The shroud of secrecy becomes a matter, not of mere cover-up, but of institutional life, dysfunctional as it is.
What went wrong at Penn State was the fear of telling the emperor he had no clothes.
Penn State is not unusual in its culture; secrecy and dysfunction accompany most major colleges, I would think. Unfortunately, Penn State had at least one monster in its midst and rather than exposing his deeds and the horror that haunted the campus, administrators and university police enabled the monster, catered to him, and protected him from the judgment of truthful exposure. Thinking it was protecting itself, Penn State destroyed its carefully wrought public image.
The long hard road back to normal is not unlike breaking a crack addiction. It requires truth-telling, accountability, principled leadership backed up by principled action, self-awareness of the messages it communicates, unraveling the institutional myth and tossing it into the debris pile. Especially in the Penn State case, it requires placing coaches in positions where they are subject to the rules and laws of common folks, taking down their castles and filling in their moats, and making them face the strong doses of reality required of those who live in the real world where conforming to accountability standards and proper codes of conduct are mandatory.
Coaches are mentors for a boy’s life. Mount Rushmores are built every day in the lives of innocent children. But, like the imperfect, but honorable persons on the real Mount Rushmore, subjection to the highest standards of human conduct and principle should be the first requirement for this place of honor.
Coaches can be well-suited for honor in personal monuments. They are mentors, whether for good or for evil. It goes with the territory of coaching in team sports. Coaches themselves must protect their mentorship by rigid peer evaluation and strict accountability. Nothing good comes of secrecy in mentorship. Penn State’s athletic department and administration took the secret path, the one of fear, fear of the rapacious monster which they themselves created.