Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Conlin

by JONATHAN BERNHARDT

Perhaps we never liked him anyway.

The baseball writers of my age and generation have found former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin's fall from grace easier than most to deal with, though not comfortable. Given almost any other impetus, comfort we would have found; before this week, I knew Conlin almost wholly as a wide, pompous ass of the institution, the moron who vomited forth the line, "The only positive thing I can think of about Hitler's time on earth: I'm sure he would have eliminated all bloggers."

He was as an obnoxious intellectual nothing of Philadelphia sports thought, a man emblematic of ways of thinking left behind in real time, similar in many respects to Murray Chass, the former New York Times baseball reporter who to this day insists his online column is not a "blog" because of the gulf he believes yawns between his and bloggers' professionalism.

That is the only way in which the two men are similar. I apologize to Murray Chass for putting his name alongside Conlin's, and that should say all that needs be said about the severity of the accusations leveled against the Daily News columnist. When a man casually opines that Hitler should have murdered you and yours, there's a fair few things he can do to make you uncomfortable about his undoing; Conlin did possibly the worst.

Last Tuesday, the Philadelphia Inquirer's Nancy Phillips published a story alleging that Conlin molested four children between the ages of seven and twelve during the 1970's, among them his own niece. The other victims were friends of his children. Since then, another three have come forth to allege abuse at Conlin's hands.

It is impossible to feel any satisfaction over this. The concept itself is sickening.
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Perhaps change is spreading from Pennsylvania.

It has been deferred horrifically beyond measure. The most important sports story of 2011 is the arrest of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky on over 40 counts of sexual abuse and assault against young boys entrusted to his care. The story has sent such insane shockwaves through the national consciousness—as damn well it should—that it has pushed aside the fall of Ohio State and the legendary Jim Tressel, the tragic death of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL in an easily preventable plane crash, and the revelation of cartoonish flaunting of NCAA regulations by Hurricanes booster Nevin Shapiro and the blind eye turned to him by the athletic department of the University of Miami. Hell, a special teams player for the Chicago Bears was just arrested as the drug kingpin of a multi-state operation that allegedly moved four kilos of cocaine a week and only got busted when it tried to move its distribution up to ten—and that has barely made a dent in the Sandusky case's dire momentum.

When the dust settles, two formerly-great institutions—Pennsylvania State University and The Second Mile, a non-profit for at-risk youth that Sandusky founded during a period when he was allegedly already abusing children—will answer, somehow, for failures on their watch. In the weeks following Sandusky's initial arrest, the retirement of legendary college football coach Joe Paterno and the shameful student riots in response, reporters like Sara Ganim of the Harrisburg Patriot-News have revealed a vast latticework of men and women in Happy Valley, PA who, at best, preferred things as they wished they were over things as they knew them to be. If there has been one good legacy of this attention—Ganim's work in particular deserves consideration for the Pulitzer Prize—it is that in those weeks that followed, the near-monolithic silence surrounding sexual crimes against children even now in the Western world once more began, however slightly, to crack.

In late November, another story emerged, this time from Syracuse: two former team ball boys accused assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine of abusing them over the course of two decades, from the 1970s through the 1990s. Due to the statute of limitation on sexual assault in Pennsylvania from that period, Fine could not be prosecuted. It came out later that ESPN had knowledge of the incident in 2002, in the form of a particularly disgusting taped conversation between one of the accusers and Fine's wife Laurie, but the network never saw fit to provide a copy to either police or the university itself.

And then on December 20, there was Conlin.
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Perhaps we believe what we want to believe.

The story Nancy Phillips filed was harrowing. As alleged, Conlin was a sobbing, predatory toad of a man—more than capable of isolating and assaulting his victims—but a near-wreck when confronted about his attacks after the fact. On first read, it is easy to hate him as he's portrayed; by the third or fourth, one finds new targets for anger. The mothers who told no one, not even their husbands, for fear of what they'd do. The father who confronted Conlin and, when the man broke down in tears saying he only put his hand on his daughter's leg, let the matter go at that. The parents who were told of his crimes and whose only response was to bar their children from going back: they draw even more scorn. After all, they are the only responsible adults in this story; the rest are children and broken people.

They came from a different time than I and those my age. We grew up with the institutionalized abuses of the Catholic Church splayed across our childhoods; I'd wager no one younger than 25 can credibly remember a time when stories about powerful men taking advantage of powerless children didn't flit in and out of the national consciousness. It is a different atmosphere now. It's hardly perfect; it's still not even acceptable. Most cases of rape, whether of children or adults, continue to go unreported in America. But mainstream opinion for this younger generation doesn't bobble its head from a quaint State College kitchen window and say, "It's a tough life." Give it what little credit it deserves: it demands blood.

With Conlin—certainly with Sandusky—that outcry is amplified by the number of victims that have come forth. It's understandable. How does one process 40 victims when one is too many? The answer is in the question: one is too many. That is the key. The proper response to Sandusky, Fine and Conlin is to let the justice system take its course—civil or criminal—and work toward an atmosphere where the first attack is the last. Sadly, there is almost no way that a motivated predator won't be able to victimize one child. But a society willing to listen to those children and not dissemble, sweep away and excuse—a society willing to look straight at its villains instead of off into the dark, empty corners of the room—not only saves its victims, but better helps those who would attack them and stops them from attacking again.

Almost more uncomfortable than Conlin's crimes in the story Phillips files are the ways he tries to absolve himself or apologize. The aforementioned tearful insistence that he only touched one preteen girl on the upper leg; writing a ten-page letter of apology to another: these are cries for help. The only hopeful truth to be taken away from such an utterly sad and completely common story is that had Conlin and his victims lived in a world where his first attack was reported to the police, they might have also lived in a world where both Conlin and his victims got the treatment they needed, and the vicious cycle of abuse might have ended there. Instead, there were at least six more victims.

It is possible that Jerry Sandusky's crimes end up as marginalized as those of last decade’s now largely anonymous Catholic priests, but not likely: the consciousness of the American people places a superstitious, ritualistic faith in the importance of a mass-media trial, and with Sandusky's defense team bound and determined to out-do Lionel Hutz and Barry Zuckercorn, it's likely the American people will get the trial they slaver for.

But even after the Sandusky business is put to rest, Bill Conlin will not be the last man to meet a slow train rolling down from all those years gone by. Other victims emboldened by the prosecutions in Pennsylvania will come forward, and some bizarre mongrels of the discourse will ask, "Why now?" One might think to reply, "Why not now?" but the real question is actually, "Why not then?" And the answer is because then, those mongrels would have growled louder that the crimes alleged didn't happen, and even if they did, those kids were asking for it. Yes, they'll use the "asking for it" defense against children. They did it to at least one high school kid in Centre County during Sandusky's reign of terror, and they'll do it again.

There have always been those who defend sexual assault of all kinds, and that is how they work. This sort of apologia comes with open discourse, and it should; it is the earned wage of a free society. A room must always fight its darkest corner.
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Perhaps there are other minor concerns to discuss.

When Deadspin broke the news that Conlin had resigned and that Phillips and the Inquirer were working on a "bombshell" about the long-time columnist, Bill Baer was asleep.

"I was napping at the time; I got up to check the computer and people had showered me with it," he said. By the time Baer awoke, the entire story had broken. "Regardless of how poorly he and I got on, it was absolutely shocking to hear. We like to think that we don't ever talk to the people who commit the crimes Sandusky or Fine do."

His 2007 spat with Conlin, which inspired Conlin's Hitler comment, was hot news again, of course; Baer's blog Crashburn Alley still had the piece describing the e-mails they'd exchanged up in full. "I thought about just taking it down for a while as I didn't want to 'profit' off of the recent news, but I decided against it as it is, in some small part, still relevant."

He's right; it is. Conlin was the Baseball Writers' Association of America's choice to receive the 2011 J.G. Taylor Spinks Award, the highest honor granted by the body that chooses the winners of all the major seasonal awards for Major League Baseball and elects its retired players to the Hall of Fame. It is essentially a lifetime achievement award; winners are not technically members of the Hall of Fame, but they are mentioned in a display on its property. In the opinion of many younger writers, myself included, Conlin shouldn't have won that award even before the allegations came out. We are heavily biased by our era; some were barely even alive when he started appearing on ESPN's The Sports Reporters. Many have little to no use for the sort of misty-eyed forced narrative that he and other big-ticket mainstream columnists employ to get through the lean months of summer.

The question of whether to strip the Spinks Award from Conlin becomes a bit more complicated if one honestly believes he never should have won it in the first place. Stripping Conlin of the award appears to be off the table, unfortunately. The official position of the BBWAA, announced on December 21, was that they took the allegations very seriously, and in that vein would not be trivializing the ongoing legal process with arguments over a silly baseball award:
We were shocked and saddened to learn of the allegations involving Bill Conlin and we extend our sympathies to everyone involved. This is a matter far more serious than baseball and, at this point, a matter best left to the proper authorities.

— Bill Shaikin, BBWAA President
This is a very respectable stance, far better than their first attempt one day earlier:
Bill Conlin has been a member in good standing of the BBWAA since 1966. The allegations have no bearing on his winning the 2011 J.G. Taylor Spink Award, which was in recognition of his notable career as a baseball writer.

— Jack O'Connell, BBWAA Secretary/Treasurer
O'Connell’s statement is a fantastic example of why secretaries and/or treasurers are not normally permitted to give an organization's first response to a delicate PR crisis.

As baseball writers who have little standing with and even less chance of joining the BBWAA, Baer and I agreed on two general points:

1. Were we members, we’d be incensed that the organization's secretary/treasurer had come out with an official statement purporting to represent our opinion on the Conlin issue before the news was 24 hours old, especially as we'd be people whose major marketable skill is providing our opinion on such things.

2. While the BBWAA applies a very stringent standard of morality to those on which it votes, it very rarely polices itself so well.

For instance, it would seem uncontroversial to assert that if a sportswriter is fired for plagiarism, he should not retain membership in an organization that he was granted entrance to by dint of that professional tie. And yet Barry Stanton, who spent 25 years with the Westchester Journal-News and who got canned in 2003 for plagiarizing a Joe Posnanski column, was still able to vote for BJ Surhoff and Tito Martinez for the Hall of Fame last year. He did not vote for former Astro Jeff Bagwell, however; he suspected Bagwell of breaking MLB's rules against steroid use. It's like some kind of demented satire: a known plagiarist not voting for a clean player because of the suspicion of cheating.

Given that Stanton will have a Hall of Fame ballot once again this year, it's unsurprising that Conlin will retain his Spinks award. To be honest, retroactively revoking awards is not a precedent any organization should be enthusiastic about setting, though there is an obvious difference between, say, revoking an MVP award because a player used performance enhancing drugs in contravention of the rules of the game and revoking a lifetime achievement award for one of your own because seven people have accused him of felony sexual assault against them as children.

It feels so unimportant now, given the horrid weight of the past week's revelations, but Conlin was always a shitty baseball writer to guys like Bill Baer, and it wasn't just differences of opinion that soured that relationship; arguments happen. It was the abrasive and frankly classless way Conlin went about prosecuting those arguments that drove the rift. This is an important distinction to make, considering everything that comes after. The fan media disliked him sometimes personally, sometimes professionally, but always ideologically. It was a far less complicated distaste than it is now. He was extremely well paid, contributed little to our understanding of the sport we loved and was actively hostile to the way that we saw the game.

In fairness, we were rarely gracious to him in return. Certainly not after he pined for Hitler to kill us all.
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Perhaps none of this matters.

The J. G. Taylor Spink Award certainly fucking doesn't. They'll quietly strike his name from the display in Cooperstown, or they won't. The award will remain a feel-good celebration of the old men who make the marathon's end. Some years it will be won by those who were remarkable in their day; many others, by those who were merely popular. This is neither a crime nor a travesty.

The BBWAA's stance on Conlin will not, ultimately, impact anything either. Bill Shaikin is right: that is a far more serious matter than baseball. The BBWAA is less equipped to comment on sensitive social issues than fish are to ride bicycles in Brooklyn. It shouldn't try. Hopefully Shaikin's statement is their last on the subject.

Most concerning is the possibility that this current, horrible period of awareness fades into the same wary realm of bad late night jokes and half-baked self-delusion that the Catholic Church scandals inspired at the dawn of the 21st century—though Catholic community leaders were far from the only clergy sexually assaulting vulnerable children in their flocks; there were abusers in all sects, Christian, Jewish and Muslim alike.

The worst outcome is always to forget, and we have shown a remarkable capacity to do that. No one "hopes" for more child sexual abuse cases to come to light, because that means more children have been sexually abused. But the raw, unfair truth is: the crimes have already been committed. In most cases, the perpetrators are either still out there or they've exhausted that most final statute of limitations and died unpunished. There hasn't been a spike in sex crimes against children in Pennsylvania over the last two months; there's been a spike in reporting them.

This country has tried not to talk about it for hundreds of years, and that worked in useless, tautological fashion: by not talking about it for hundreds of years, all we accomplished was... not talking about it for hundreds of years. We didn't make it go away. Our historical and unforgivable inaction culminated, perhaps, with Joe Paterno not immediately reporting the violent anal rape of a preteen boy because—by his own testimony—it was a Friday and he didn't want to ruin anyone's weekend.

The awareness cases like Conlin's bring are not important for the children, who cannot and should not have to defend themselves, and not for the pedophiles, who are what they are—sick human beings with a destructive disorder that requires treatment—but for the otherwise reasonable men and women who are told of abuse and do nothing. In his alleged crimes Conlin is in no way unique; in fact, he's sadly stereotypical: the creepy mirror-dark Santa Claus uncle, ruining his nieces' and nephews' lives. Bill Conlin as accused is almost a goddamn trope.

But every trope has its trappings, markers, and cues. Every trope has telltale signs of the script it will follow. A map's long since been drawn for every sad piece of repeated history in this world.

Perhaps we can learn.


Jonathan Bernhardt is a freelance writer and contributor to Baseball Prospectus. His last piece for Mr. Destructo was a profile of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. You can follow him on Twitter.

11 comments:

  1. Give this man a dictatorial identity and make him a regular.

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  2. Hear, hear!

    Great piece.
    Got my blood boiling, then gradually turned the burners down.

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  3. I come to this site more often and am never unrewarded with good writing.

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  4. Fantastic piece. Thank you for your sobriety. Though I don't practice it myself I can admire it in others.

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  5. How is it that there has been no public outcry against ESPN for failing to report the Bernie Fine tape?

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  6. I hereby nominate him for Hosni Mubarak.

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  7. Its amazing how the Catholic church has managed to make Catholic tolerate child sex abuse.

    Penn State had one pedophile. Syracuse University had one. A Philly newspaper had one.

    The Catholic church had 37 “Jerry Sanduskys” in Philadelphia alone that they were hiding until February of 2011, and Cardinal Justin Rigali lied to the congregation and said there were none. Two weeks later, a grand jury report proved that there were 37, and they did things to children that were horrifying to anyone other than an Catholic priest. The Catholic church, in their own John Jay report, found that 97% of diocese had at least one pedophile. The Catholic church are the gangsters of the child sex world.

    Children need our protection from the Catholic church and anyone else that tries to commit and cover up child sex crimes.

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  8. Really well said. I work with children who are the victims of sexual abuse. Your article is the kind of conversation everyone should be having. I wish I could hang it on the wall of every, church, school, gymnasium, playground and toy store in this country. Thanks.

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  9. Perhaps we CAN learn.

    Aw fuck it, who am I kidding? Take me, Hitler!

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  10. Loved this. Great piece. I always thought Conlin was an unnecessary blowhard (yet I somehow read him everyday)

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Et tu, Mr. Destructo? is a politics, sports and media blog whose purpose is to tell jokes or be really right about things. All of us have real jobs and don't need the hassle that telling jokes here might occasion, which is why some contributors find it more tasteful to pretend to be dead mass murderers.