On May 29, 1989, Sports Illustrated released its now infamous cover story detailing the University of Kentucky’s basketball scandal. The cover was poignant in its simplicity: A single UK player, back turned, head bowed, shoulders slumped, seemingly weighed down by two words suspended above him: “Kentucky’s Shame.”
Those two words said it all, because truthfully, there was nothing else to be said. We were all ashamed.
For years, University of Louisville fans have shared that Sport’s Illustrated cover to mock us, but these days, I find myself strangely proud of it. Because at least we were ashamed.
The only thing worse than shame is shamelessness, and if I were to put a label on this recent chapter of U of L’s history, it would be: “Louisville’s Shame-lessness.”
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It’s difficult to imagine a more disgraceful week for U of L. First, the results of the foundation audit revealed unimaginable corruption — former president James Ramsey’s erased hard drive, hidden paper trails and deleted e-mails, exorbitant and unjustifiable salaries, and on and on the dishonesty goes.
And then came the findings from the NCAA investigation. As severe as the penalty was, one can make the argument it could have been harsher. Everyone already knew that prostitutes were hired for recruits, but the details of the investigation made it very real and heartbreaking. Vulnerable teenagers unknowingly placed in sordid situations against their wills.
In one case, a 16-year-old refused the offer but was then coerced by U of L staff into sexual acts with a prostitute. That’s not a recruiting violation; that’s abuse!
So surely this has brought about institutional humiliation and contrition? Surely the fan base has finally had enough and is demanding drastic changes? Surely U of L has responded by taking responsibility and cleaning house?
One would think, but we’ve heard nothing of the sort. In fact, we’ve heard very little from the administration at all. Instead, we’ve heard Rick Pitino deflect the blame, defy the penalties and decry the NCAA (not just for their punishment, but apparently for giving Jimmy V cancer). Also, we’ve heard Louisville fans blindly justify and insanely rationalize.
Sadly, this is becoming all too familiar in our culture at large. Have you noticed the death of shame in American society? In times past, character was viewed as an integral part of competency. That’s not to say that the past was free from scandal, but that scandal at least produced deep shame and severe consequences.
Today our athletes, celebrities and politicians can literally do no wrong as long as they belong to our tribe and benefit our cause. It is an unholy alliance we have made with our public leaders — give us what we want and we will reward you with blissfully blind allegiance.
But we fail to see the peril of this development. The death of shame very well could lead to the death of culture.
That’s because shame is actually functional. A culture without shame is like a body without pain receptors. Of course pain is unpleasant, but it is essential. It tells you to take your hand off something that will burn, to stop walking on a bone that is broken, to see a doctor for a symptom that indicates disease — pain is an unpleasant mercy that continually protects us.
And so it is with shame. A very important clarification is that there is a negative form of shame where we harmfully disgrace that which we should never be ashamed of. But in its best form, shame is the God-ordained response to our failures and, without it, we become self-destructive. Shame signals to us that something is wrong with our conduct.
If it is ignored or denied, the outcome will be moral destruction, which is exactly what I fear is happening — not just at Louisville — but within our culture as a whole.
This past week has left me asking that simple yet profound question from generations past: Have you no shame?
Seriously Louisville, have you no shame? Seriously America, have we no shame?
Shamefully, it seems the answer is no.
The Rev. Robert Cunningham is senior pastor of Tates Creek Presbyterian Church in Lexington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.