Saturday, July 28, 2012

USA Swimming Child-Abuse Scandal

Child-abuse scandals have been in the news quite a lot lately. The Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal has attracted the most attention ("Jerry Sandusky and Penn State's Punishment"), but there has also been the Horace Mann School scandal ("Not to Beat a Dead Horse, But...") where it appears that from the 1970s to the 1990s there were multiple instances of sexual abuse of students by teachers that were ignored or condoned by (some) school administrators. And there was also the story of the Assistant Principal at Leland High School who was arrested unlawful sexual conduct with a minor ("Celibacy and the Pastoral Abuse of Minors"). And so here's another one: USA Swimming is "home" to the largest child molestation scandal in U.S. sports history ("After Paterno -- now what about USA Swimming's child molestation scandal?"), but evidently little has been done about it:
With more than 50 coaches already banned for life for sexually molesting minor swimmers and many more still coaching at local swim clubs, not a single individual or board member at USA Swimming has been held accountable. Unlike Penn State, which cleaned house, those persons who had extensive knowledge about pedophile swim coaches and failed to act in any manner, resulting in countless additional incidents of sexual exploitation and molestation, have not only kept their jobs but have not received any kind of reprimand whatsoever (emphasis added). 
I think it's interesting that this scandal has received almost no coverage unlike the coverage the Catholic church gets when of its own is accused, caught, or convicted (which should make one wonder about journalist biases). One would hope that someone or some institution (e.g., the US Olympic Committee, Congress) will do the right thing and clean house at USA Swimming, in such a way that our swimmers don't "pay" for the crimes of others (like current and former Penn State football players are for the crimes of Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, and Penn State officials - "Jerry Sandusky and Penn State's Punishment").

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Jerry Sandusky and Penn State's Punishment

In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal, in which head coach Joe Paterno and Penn State officials didn't do enough to put a stop to Sandusky (an investigation conducted by former FBI director Louis Freeh concluded that Paterno played a key role in concealing Sandusky's sexual crimes over at least an eight-year period, going so far as dissuading other university officials from reporting Sandusky to the authorities), the NCAA has come down hard on Penn State football. In particular, it has
  • fined Penn State $60 million,
  • stripped its football program of 40 scholarships,
  • banned it from playing in any bowl games for the next 4 years, and
  • vacated its 112 football victories from 1998 to 2011 (dropping Paterno from first to twelfth in the all-time wins list)
While the NCAA is obviously trying to make an example of Penn State, most of these penalties hurt current and former players more than they do Joe Paterno (who passed away back in January) or Jerry Sandusky. As a good friend and retired college professor put it to me in an email:
It seems to me that these sanctions are misdirected; that the people who committed the crimes in question have been, or are being, punished, and that the players and others who are being punished along with them had no part in them. I see a huge non sequitur in motion here. If I had a blog, this is what I would be writing about this morning. I know a rather sick culture has developed around college sports, but I am not sure this is the way to deal with it.
I agree. It's unclear to me why people who played or currently play for Penn State have to suffer the consequences of someone else's actions. Sandusky has been convicted and is in prison, and Paterno was fired and his statue was removed from in front of the Penn State football stadium. In my opinion, along with the $60 million fine, that's more than enough punishment. It's certainly more than the punishment that has been meted out to the USA Swimming association where dozens of coaches over several decades have been guilty of child-abuse and little or no action has been taken against board members who tried to cover the abuses up. That, however, is another story (and will be the topic of my next post).

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The "Sitz im Leben" of Jesus' Parables

New Testament (NT) scholars who spend a lot of time thinking about Jesus' parables are often concerned with the "sitz im leben" of the parables, that is, their "setting in life." The idea lying behind this quest is that knowing the settings in which Jesus uttered his parables helps in their interpretation. The significance of a particular phrase or twist in a parable can be lost on modern interpreters if they don't have a grasp of the first century middle eastern world. Consequently, they spend a lot of time drawing on historical and socio-cultural studies in order to better understand Jesus's world.

As part of this quest to gain a better understanding of the setting of Jesus' parables, NT scholars often seek to reconstruct their original wording. Take, for example, the parable of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19). The gospel writers recount the parable differently from one another:
"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." (Matt 13:31-32)
"With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." (Mark 4:31-32)
"What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches." (Luke 13:18-19)
The New Testament scholar, Bernard Brandon Scott, ("Here Then the Parable," p. 373) argues that the original parable went something like this:
"[The kingdom of God is] like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden and it grew and became a great shrub and puts forth large branches so that the birds of heaven make nests in its shade/shelter."
While Scott's reconstruction is plausible, it operates under one of two questionable assumptions: Either (1) Jesus uttered the parable only once, or (2) he said it exactly the same way and in exactly the same setting each time he told it. Both of these scenarios strike me as unlikely. It is far more probable that Jesus told each of his parables multiple times to different audiences in various settings, and he seldom told them exactly the same way each time. If I am right, I'm not sure what it would mean for parable scholarship, but at a minimum I suspect that the extant versions found in the Gospels would carry more weight than they currently do among certain scholars.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Carpool Lane Scofflaws, Commuting, and Me

I understand why most people dislike carpool lane scofflaws. I, too, become angry (envious?) when solo drivers use the carpool lane during commute hours and are not pulled over by the highway patrol. However, when I take a moment to think about it, carpool lane scofflaws do not slow my commute down. In fact, they speed it up because they don't clog up any of the lanes to which I am confined.

The drivers who do slow me down, however, are those who are traveling with one or more passengers and are thus eligible to use the carpool lane but don't. Although I don't think they mean to, by doing so they unncessarily increase the traffic in the lanes that the rest of us have to use.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Dementia, Creativity, and the Unraveling of Bolero

Here's an interesting podcast ("Unraveling Bolero") from the Radiolab folks at WNYC Radio. It is the story about two individuals separated by time and distance who both experienced a burst of creativity that was caused by a rare and deadly disease:
Anne Adams was a brilliant biologist. But when her son Alex was in a bad car accident, she decided to stay home to help him recover. And then, rather suddenly, she decided to quit science altogether and become a full-time artist. After that, her husband Robert Adams tells us, she just painted and painted and painted. First houses and buildings, then a series of paintings involving strawberries, and then ... "Bolero." 
At some point, Anne became obsessed with Maurice Ravel's famous composition and decided to put an elaborate visual rendition of the song to canvas. She called it "Unraveling Bolero" (pictured above). But at the time, she had no idea that both she and Ravel would themselves unravel shortly after their experiences with this odd piece of music.
This 20-minute podcast is absolutely fascinating and can be downloaded from iTunes or listened to at the Radiolab website ("Unraveling Bolero").

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Lance Armstrong and Cheating

"Anything worth having is a thing worth cheating for."
-- W. C. Fields

"If you're not cheating, you're not trying, and it's only cheating if you get caught."
Mark Grace, Chicago Cubs 1st  Baseman 

Evidently, Lance Armstrong is in danger of losing his seven Tour de France titles because he may have used performance-enhancing drugs during his amazing streak. But if they strip him of his titles, who are they going to give them to since it now appears that just about everyone on the tour in those days was using performance-enhancing drugs? And if everyone was involved in doping, then how can we call what Armstrong did cheating? As I've written before (Cheating and Sports, Part I), cheating in sports isn't as black and white as some people believe it to be.

Update: Today (August 23rd), the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced that it will strip Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles after he dropped his fight against charges that he used performance enhancing drugs ("USADA to Strip Lance Armstrong of 7 Tour Titles"). Related to this is a later post of mine regarding SF Giants outfield, Melky Cabrera ("Melky: Say it Ain't So") and the benefits of testosterone ("Testosterone's Benefits").

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Courtesy is not Always the Best Policy

I'm all for courteous drivers. Our freeways, highways, and surface streets would be a whole lot safer if everyone was a bit more considerate of others. There are times, however, when being courteous is not always the best policy. For instance, recently I followed a car through a intersection and into the parking lot of a grocery store on the other side (i.e.,, the street dead-ended into the grocery store's parking lot), and the driver, being ever-so-considerate, stopped in order to let a mother and her children cross in front of him.

The right thing to do, right? Wrong. By stopping, the driver caused cars behind him to back up into the intersection (it didn't happen to me, if you're wondering), placing them in danger of being hit by another car. But what about the mother and her children? They weren't already crossing in front of the car, so the driver could have proceeded into the parking lot without endangering their well-being, but by stopping, he endangered the well-being of the drivers behind him. I've witnessed similar instances when I've been running: drivers stopping to let me cross a side street while causing a dangerous backup on the main thoroughfare.

The moral of the story? While being courteous is almost always the right thing to do, sometimes it isn't, which is why drivers need to be aware of their entire surroundings, not just what's in front of them.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Little League Dads Behaving Badly

Here's something not to celebrate: Two Little League Dads duking it out after the conclusion of their respective sons' All-Star game (the sons were on opposing teams).

The fight reportedly started when Iram King asked Charles Davidson to lower the music he was playing after the completion of a game between the Northern Little League and Harris County All-Stars. Evidently, Davidson, whose son was on the winning team, reportedly regularly plays music between innings of the team’s games and was playing “All I Do Is Win,” Auburn University's rally song. He turned it down, but the two men then began to talk about some of the players in the game, and it quickly escalated into a fight. You can see the Good Morning America report and video of incident here:

Friday, July 6, 2012

What's Wrong with the Olympic Trials

Every four years, the track and field trials are held to select those athletes the US will send to the Olympic games. Most athletes who should qualify do, but there's always the occasional upset (or injury), which while making the trials exciting to watch, insures that we seldom field the best possible Olympic team.

Some of you may remember decathlon champion Dan O'Brien, who was the favorite to win the gold medal at in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. However, during the trials he met with disaster in the pole vault, the 8th event. After passing at the first four (i.e., lower) heights, O'Brien began competing when the bar was at 15' 9" but failed to clear the bar. As a result, he scored no points for this event, dropped from first to twelfth, and didn't make the team. Luckily for O'Brien, he did qualify for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta where he won the gold medal. However, he probably would have won it in 1992 as well but because of one bad day (actually, one bad event), he didn't make the team. His chief American rival and friend, Dave Johnson, did make the team and ultimately won the bronze at the 1992 games, but it's clear we didn't send all of our best athletes to Barcelona.

So, here's an idea that should increase the odds that such travesties don't occur and that we send the best possible track and field team to the Olympics. Slots for the team should be based on points earned a series of sanctioned meets held during the six or twelve months preceding the trials. The trials would still be held, the athletes would earn points at the trials, and the points that they could potentially earn at the trials would be more than they could earn at any single preceding meets, meaning that trials were still the most important meet in terms of earning a spot on the team. However, the points that could be earned at the trials wouldn't be so much that a leading contender (like O'Brien) could drop off the team simply because he or she had a bad day. As any current or former athlete knows: everyone eventually has a bad day. In practical terms what this would mean is that there would still be upsets (especially for the final spot in each of the events) but that the best athlete in each event would almost always qualify for the team.

I realize that the Olympics are supposed to symbolize international cooperation and competition, but like most Americans, I like to win too.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Work, Faith, and Islamists

Here are the abstracts from a couple of interesting columns ("Take This Job and Love It" and "The Power of Language: Does the Term Islamist Increase Understanding or Promote Prejudice?") by David Briggs.

First, the article on work and faith ("Take This Job and Love It"):

Pay. Benefits. Opportunities for advancement. These are some of the major considerations people take into account in choosing where to work. Now, employers can add another factor: Faith. An increasing body of research suggests that faith plays a major role in the workplace, from being an indicator of how long employees will stay at one company to how well they do their jobs.
Next, the article on the use of the term Islamist ("The Power of Language: Does the Term Islamist Increase Understanding or Promote Prejudice?"):
One rarely hears activists from religious traditions other than Islam identified in a shorthand term emphasizing their faith. What American and western audiences are increasingly hearing, however, since the political and social upheaval that accompanied the Arab spring, is the term Islamist. Now there is growing concern that the label that was once welcomed by some as an alternative to more pejorative terms such as Islamic fundamentalist may itself be more a source of stereotyping than understanding.

As I've noted in previous posts, Briggs's column (Ahead of the Trend) is a regular feature of the Association of Religion Data Archives (the ARDA), which is probably the best source for data on and answers about religious belief and behavior. It was originally designed with the hope that journalists would use it so that they would avoid misreporting religious facts. It has since grown into the largest repository of data from various studies of religion from around the world.

It is much more than a data repository however. It also houses a research hub where a number of research papers by leading scholars are posted. It also has a learning center, which many people of faith would find interesting. For example, it contains
Finally, it hosts a congregational resource center that provides online resources for congregations, such as GIS maps and reports and congregational membership reports (by zip code), congregational quick stats, a community profile builder, as well as relevant links to some of the items mentioned above.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Myth of Religious Violence

Here's a book worth considering: The Myth of Religious Violence by William Cavanaugh. In it Cavanaugh challenges two "myths": (1) the belief that religious ideologies are more prone to violence than are secular ones and (2) the widely accepted assumption that secular violence is more rational (and thus more justified) than religious violence.

In particular, Cavanaugh contends that the belief that there is something inherent in religion that makes it more prone to violence than the "secular" is false. Secular governments (e.g., the USSR, the People's Republic of China, the Khmer Rouge) have killed just as many people (probably more) than have religious ones. To be clear, Cavanaugh doesn't argue that religious ideologies have not been or cannot be violent. He clearly recognizes that they can. He simply agues that the notion that there is something about religious ideologies that make them more prone to violence than secular ideologies is just plain wrong. However, because many believe that religion has a propensity to promote violence, there is a widely-held assumption that it has to be tamed by restricting it access to public power.

Cavanaugh also argues that the myth of religious violence is just that: a narrative that is taken for granted and seldom challenged. He contends that the separation of the "religious" from the "secular" focuses attention on certain forms of violence (i.e., religious violence) while directing attention away from others (i.e., secular). The consequences of this is the religious violence is often seen as fanatical, while secular violence is seen as rational, necessary, and sometimes laudable. Cavanaugh's point is not that one is necessarily better than the other. Both can be unjust. The problem is that the "myth of religious violence" is so prevalent is that many of us accept the use of secular violence without ever challenging its legitimacy. With this modest book, he's hoping to change that.