Paul Prather: Life not black and white even when it comes to the Cats

Contributing Columnist,Paul PratherJuly 5, 2014 

In 1985, while I was attending graduate school at the University of Kentucky and before I'd contemplated working at the Herald-Leader, this newspaper published a Pulitzer Prize-winning series about improper cash payoffs to UK basketball players.

I wasn't a newsroom insider, simply another outside reader.

But the evidence of scandalous behavior the newspaper uncovered struck me as conclusive. It seemed the program was, at the time, crooked as a dog's hind leg.

That wasn't what left a lasting impression on me, though.

Big-time college ball is big-time college ball, even if it's at UK, a university of which I'm particularly fond, having earned multiple academic degrees there.

What made the biggest impression on me was my father's response.

I was 29, and for almost three decades he'd been drilling into me the paramount importance of integrity.

"Do the right thing just because it's right," he'd told me a jillion times. "Not because someone's watching. Just because it's right. Remember, even when no one else sees you, God sees. It doesn't matter what the crowd does. You do the right thing."

He lived this credo himself, all the way to the end.

Dad ultimately was married to my mother for 50 years, and I would bet my house, car and IRA he never cheated on her, although he had opportunities.

He was a minister for 60 years, and while he, like most other pastors, experienced professional ups and downs, he never was accused of any financial shenanigans.

So imagine my shock when I first discussed the UK basketball scandal with him.

I found him furious. Bouncing off the walls mad.

But not at UK's administrators, coaches, players or boosters.

He was angry at the newspaper.

No, he insisted, UK didn't do anything wrong. Nothing!

"Dad," I said, incredulous, "you read the stories. The evidence is overwhelming."

Even if UK did cheat, he argued, it wasn't anything its competitors weren't doing—and probably the competitors were far worse, so UK was justified. And even if UK was the worst of all, nobody in Lexington had any business exposing it and causing trouble for the program. That squalid rag of a paper should have kept its news to itself.

I remember our conversation because, all these years later, I'm still dumbstruck.

When it came to Dad's Wildcats, his consistent moral reasoning and sense of fair play took flight and soared up the chimney like smoke on a brisk draught.

For him, for reasons I still can't identify (and he's no longer around to ask), the UK basketball program was — had to be — unassailable, above criticism.

C-A-T-S, Cats, Cats, Cats!

This column isn't a diatribe against my father or Wildcats basketball. Did I mention I'm a UK alum?

It's something I recall occasionally as I'm reading the online comments about some political controversy or another—or responding to the emails generated by my columns. Or counseling parishioners. Or listening to friends talk.

A great many of us, perhaps the majority, suffer from willful blindness when it comes to the people, principles or organizations we love.

You'll run into a mother, for instance, who insists her five-time-felon son is a wonderful, sensitive boy; he only fell into bad company and then was framed by the cops.

Five times.

You want to shout, "Ma'am, Junior didn't fall in with bad company. He is bad company. He's the guy other parents warn their kids to stay clear of."

But she wouldn't hear you. To her, despite all hard evidence, Junior is a gem. It's the rest of society that's messed up.

You encounter people who think it's patriotism to defend their country's policies, even when their country is sanctioning torture. Or they'll fight you to the floor over their church's holiness, even when the church has acted dishonorably.

I don't know why this is.

I suspect that with a few, it's emotional immaturity. They live in a starkly black-and-white world. People or organizations must be entirely good or entirely evil. To admit Junior has flaws is to consign him entirely to Satan's camp. He's either a saint sent straight from heaven or a devil; there's no middle ground.

For others, maybe it's a craving for comfort. Acknowledging flaws might mean having to confront those flaws. Confrontation inevitably proves uncomfortable and its outcomes are uncertain. Better never to question.

Others perhaps are so emotionally interlocked with the Cats or the First Apostolic Tabernacle of Holy Ghost Anointing they can't separate their own identity from those other people or things. To admit the Cats erred is to say they themselves erred.

While all these attitudes are understandable, they're also counterproductive.

As much as we'd like to, we don't live in a black-and-white reality. Real people, and real institutions, can be simultaneously graced by God and warped by sin. They can do marvelous good with one hand and with the other commit galling wrongs.

That's life. The world is fallen. The world is complex and contradictory.

Nothing gets improved until a parent, a spouse, a church member, a sports fan looks at the situation bravely and says, "You know, this isn't right. This must change."

It's possible to love someone or something and recognize both its virtues and faults. Indeed, that's the sign of mature, healthy love as opposed to childish, sickly love.

Healthy love recognizes that honesty is where improvement and growth start. If you love a thing, you have to love it enough to face, and deal with, the whole spectrum of facts about it.

Paul Prather is the pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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