When it’s a different kind of trophy

By now, I assume everyone is familiar with the sad saga of Kevin Clash, one-time Elmo?  For those of you who have somehow avoided the story (in which case I hope your sojourn on Mars was restful), Mr. Clash is the “Sesame Street” performer who created the role of the fluffy, exuberant red monster that became a sanity-threatening juggernaut when a giggling, tickle-able toy version was marketed a few years back.  (I have never been a big fan of Elmo, who was a background character when I first watched the show.  He lacked the subversive humor and charm of my favorite, Grover.)  Mr. Clash has faced accusations of inappropriate sexual relations with now two men when they were in their teens, though I understand that the allegations of one were found to be unsubstantiated.

Here is where I do the obligatory stipulating that it is grossly inappropriate for a grown man to have a sexual relationship with a teenage boy.  If the allegations against Mr. Clash are true, then he should face the penalties associated with sexually exploiting a minor.  Nothing I say subsequently indicates I condone his alleged behavior.  Is that sufficiently clear?

That said (and pace Amanda Hess), I hope somehow this ends up with Mr. Clash’s name cleared.  I’ve actually met him once, when he brought Elmo for an appearance at a summer camp for children and families with HIV/AIDS where I used to volunteer.  While this is hardly a deep and abiding personal connection, it was enough to give me a good impression of him as a generous and kindhearted person, and nobody likes to learn dark things about people they admire.

But let’s sadly suppose the allegations are true.  Obviously his career as a children’s entertainer is already a shambles, and it would be utterly demolished under those circumstances.  But beyond the unavoidable obliteration of his life’s work, what about his accolades and awards?  What about his numerous Emmys?  Should he be stripped of them?

After all, a similar punishment was meted out for those who covered up the serial predations of Jerry Sandusky.  Not only did the perpetrator himself go to prison (where he belongs), but the winning record of his boss and abettor Joe Paterno was wiped from the books.  I must admit, I found that penalty confusing.  As I asked at the time:

Did his team score more points than the other team or didn’t it?  If his team scored more points, how does one call that anything other than a win?  The man who coached the team may have been a moral vacuum tube, but how does that change the score?  Am I wrong to find this aspect of the punishment downright Orwellian?


Events transpired in a certain way.  By doing so, they are described using a set of commonly-understood terms.  This punishment now renders the outcome of the games some wholly new concept, which must be plucked from the air.  Unless the predatory or complicit misdeeds of the coaching staff somehow directly affected the final score, how does it make sense to say Penn State didn’t win?

I still think this makes no sense.  Unless Paterno’s or Sandusky’s actions materially affected the outcomes of those games, I simply fail to grasp why blacking out the wins of many seasons’ worth of teams is in any way reasonable.  Tear down his statue, paint over his picture, spit when his name is mentioned — fine by me.  But things happened a certain way, things were accomplished a certain way, and pretending otherwise because we despise the person who helped accomplish them seems silly.  (In the case of Lance Armstrong, since his misdeeds had a direct bearing on his wins it seems to make much more sense to me that he be stripped of them.)

But if you think the above decision was proper, then what about Mr. Clash?  If we treat this kind of malfeasance as a cause to not only punish but blot out the names of the transgressors, then shouldn’t Mr. Clash be forced to hand over his statuettes?  If it happened to a celebrity for whom I had no particular affection (and of whom, in fact, I had not even heard until the Sandusky scandal broke), then it only seems fair that it happen to one I like.  Right?

Again, let me make super-duper crystal clear that I have nothing but contempt for Mr. Sandusky and little better to say about the late Mr. Paterno.  If the accusations against Mr. Clash end up holding water, it would sadden me to have to say that he deserves his own measure of our condemnation.  Nothing I say here is anything like an excuse for what they did or may have done.

Furthermore, I am not asking this in a stupid attempt at glibness.  But I sincerely question if this kind of reaction is the meet way for society to treat those whose private sins are made public.  Do we not merely punish, but expunge them from our memories?  Do we act as though we never loved them?  Because we did, in the manner of fans, love them indeed.  Can we find a way of understanding those we once cherished as more broken than we knew, or must our response be absolute, a black hole where our star once stood?

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. I think there is a difference. Did the Emmy people help cover up for dude’s behaviour? Did the Sesame Street people? I took the vacating of wins for PS as a punishment to the institution for its failures. If they really wanted to hurt PS they should have kicked them out of D1 or something like that. Taking away wins stings since lots of fans care deeply about the records but its also a punishment aimed at avoiding keeping them down.

  2. Re: Mr. Clash. Were the accusations against him to be substantiated, I think it’s probably fair game to look back over the corpus of his work and see if there’s something questionable about the content. While it seems hard to believe that an operation with the reputation of Children’s Television Workshop would allow something to go on the air suggesting that a child should trust an adult who tries to “tickle” them inappropriately, if it turns out that’s what the artist was doing then yes, I would say that a re-examination of the art is probably appropriate. It is art aimed at young children, after all, and art that is intended to convey messages and education to them.

    Now, your more general point. People have a hard time distinguishing between good and had in an ambiguous person. It’s easy to find examples, for instance, of a celebrity whose poor personal choices suggest a lack of personal morality, but whose fans nevertheless insist on offering endless apologia for that misbehavior. (I’m looking at the superficially attractive Kristen Stewart here.) It is as though the fandom for the celebrity and the performances given by the celebrity somehow demands a moral endorsement of the person herself. It is insufficient to say, “I think she’s beautiful and she played the role of that vampire girl so well. What a shame she let her personal life turn in to such a mess!” No, she must be perfect and without moral blemish at all. Similarly, Mel Gibson goes off on an awful, indefensible, anti-Semitic rant. Suddenly he’s a bad filmmaker, and I’m supposed to burn my DVD of Braveheart to show solidarity with my Jewish friends? This is silly, but lots of people think that way.

    • You should burn your DVD of Braveheart out of solidarity to your Scottish friends and their history.

      • I don’t actually own a Braveheart DVD at all. But I did enjoy the movie and didn’t invest a whole lot of effort into figuring out whether it was authentic or not. Instead, I presumed that it would take liberties with history.

        • You should burn it…. to a DVD after downloading a bootleg copy. Then you can enjoy Gibson’s work without him getting any compensation for it. That should satisfy your Jewish and Scottish friends.

    • I thought of Mel Gibson as well.
      And Robert Downey, Jr.

      I just want to be able to mention the Illuminati at least three times on this thread.
      That counts as once.

      The thread is young.

    • Or, conversely, people who defended Roman Polanski because he’s a great director and his victim was just a nobody.

      (And isn’t Kristen Stewart only a thing because fans were invested in her romance with whatshisname? I don’t recall anybody blaming Angelina Jolie for breaking up a marriage, because two people that hot belong together.)

        • I agree with the good doctor regarding the Polanski apologetics. I think it’s probably very slightly to Hollywood’s credit that there was at least some meaningful pushback in the trade press on his apologists and after the fact enablers, at least in regard to the 2009 arrest and its sequelae (not looking to relitigate that entire debacle).

          An interesting question is to what degree his vileness as a human being is an epiphenomenon of the same characterological defects that made him a good director, e.g. should his industry various awards have been rescinded? I would say the awards should not be rescinded, no more than either Clash’ or Penn State’s (in contrast to Armstrong’s), unless some sort of nexus between the criminal behavior and his filmmaking could be shown (I have no particular reason to doubt that many other awardwinning directors have been pretty vile, though I wouldn’t want to give odds on any matching Polanski).

          • Scott,

            I know in the sports world there are a number of athletes who are great precisely because they are crazy. Take away the “crazy” part and you take away part of what made them excel. Now, this is a very different type of “crazy” than the type that Polanski is, but I don’t doubt that there are people who are genius because of their pathologies or are pathological because of their genius.

          • Kazzy,
            it’s all well and good until folks start deliberately making other folks insane, just to get better shiny things. “He was a better engineer when he was crazy!”

          • On that subject, I’ve read an essay suggesting that Victor Salva’s pedophilia is part of the reason he’s a good film director. Not sure how I feel about that.

          • I’m sure that essay was written by the Illumi-naughty-naughty.
            Really, it seems like a counter-intuitive argument; that creative production functions best when working around compelled avoidance behaviors.

      • “I don’t recall anybody blaming Angelina Jolie for breaking up a marriage,”

        People Magazine (and the others of that ilk) continue to do so, in spite of [a] Jennifer Anniston’s history of dating and marrying for attention and [b] the fact that Jolie and Pitt seem very happy together.

        Jolie did not seduce Pitt or do any other action to “break up the marriage” other than be on the Hollywood scene. I find the whole thing disgusting.

  3. Nobody died because this person potentially had a bit of fun with some teens.
    I think that’s important.
    No murders were covered up because it had something to do with Elmo.
    I think that’s important.
    Penn State and Paterno stood by and let Sandusky go on to preserve the football team’s rep.
    I think that’s important.
    Kane’s going after our governor now because he stood by and let the pervert keep on molesting kids, simply to get more campaign donations.
    I think that’s important.

    Do you remember Tailhook? I think that people deserve to be hung out to dry if they ignore malfeasance.

  4. My disjointed thought on this would be to first wonder what the Emmy was precisely for.

    If it was “best puppetry”, that’s one thing, if it were “best children’s programming”, that’d be another. To have the award itself specifically mention “children”? That’s something that changes things, in my mind.

    Well, you provided a link, let’s look at it… and, ugh, every single one is of the form “Best (something) In A Children’s Program”. Give each of those an asterisk. At the bottom of the page, we can say “this particular thing happened.”

    That seems more fitting than saying “there was no Emmy awarded for such-and-such in 2006” the way they’re going to do for Penn’s “Championships”.

  5. Actors at Penn State covered up Sandusky’s crimes. Had they not, he would not have been on the sideline to assist the team in winning games. As such, they might not have won those games. At least, that is the theory. Sandusky was essentially “ineligible” and Penn State knew that. Fruit of the poison tree and all that.

    If Cash did what he did completely unknown to the folks at “Sesame Street” or PBS, than it is hard to find fault with them. If they covered up or otherwise aided and abetted him, even by looking the other way, it would legitimately bring the show and its awards into question. I don’t know the in’s and out’s of the Emmy’s enough to say if stripping them is the appropriate punishment, but I wouldn’t balk at it being considered.

    For the record, I agreed with stripping Penn State of the wins not necessarily because it was a fitting punishment for child sexual abuse or the resulting cover up, but because it (hopefully) sent a message that no one and nothing is bigger than protecting the innocent. In failing to do so, Penn State lost that which they held most sacred, because it was this sacredness that caused their malfeasance.

  6. Didn’t the accuser retract his accusation? I didn’t know there’d been another. Certainly depressing news.

    • RE: accuser #1: the word is that he “retracted” only upon six-figure negotiated settlement.

      Afterwards, he tried to retract the retraction. AVClub’s Sean O’Neal has covered this in several Newswire articles that are some of the most depressingly-hilariously-existentially-LOL-bleakly-funny pieces that I have ever read.

      None of this is to say that both accusers may not be simply money-seeking, dishonest and/or unbalanced.

      But it’s not quite as simple as “he retracted”.

      • Well obviously Elmo has an unwise penchant for young men. The question is whether they were legally under aged. The retractions certainly make it look more dubious and we are supposed to presume innocent until proven guilty. I just wasn’t clear there was a second accuser. Noone comes off looking good that’s for sure.

      • I should jump in here to say that, in my opinion, Accuser #2’s civil complaint is almost certainly barred by the statute of limitations, and is frankly borderline frivolous as a legal matter. That doesn’t mean that nothing illegal happened, of course, but the allegations are such that there’s no real way to either verify or disprove them.

    • Blaise has pretty much summed up my thoughts.

      There was a witchhunt after one of the workers at my son’s daycare. A young girl reported to her mother that the man had helped her take off her pants (but not her underwear).

      It was reported to the city (as it should be!) and the worker was placed on leave while the matter was investigated. At the public meeting there were parents there wanting the man arrested, interrogated and claiming that their children had ‘changed’ since he began working at the daycare.

      Mascara was running, I kid you not.

      I was questioned about the situation as I saw the child (and worker) in question on the day the alleged ‘impropriety’ took place. The girl’s mother had sent her to daycare (in the middle of July) in a long sleeve shirt, black denim pants and boots. She had no clothes she could change into (her clothes basket was next to my son’s), and it was nearly 110 F that day.

      She was one of three children who were running around outside in underwear, socks and shirts because their parents can’t figure out how to send weather appropriate clothing for them.

      Now, I’ll admit it wasn’t terribly bright of him to not have a second worker present when he helped her out of her jeans – or have a female employee do it instead of him. I don’t say this to infer that men are the only predators around – women do it too – but the public acceptance of a woman helping a young girl disrobe vs a man helping her…. most of us are more comfortable with it being the former rather than the latter.

      The end result?

      He won the suit, was given all his earnings from the point of suspension and was given enough of a severance package to retire upon. He opted to retire early, since his chances of being employed elsewhere in childcare had effectively dropped to zero after the accusation.

      • That is a sad story, though at least he made it out semi-OK (though the scandal will probably follow/haunt him to some degree, forever). I really wish we knew how to strike a better balance between protecting children, and viewing all men who want to work with kids as Potential Perverts Until Proven Otherwise.

        I had a friend who used to be a teacher of small kids, and he wasn’t allowed to hug them – even if they needed it (crying or hurt). Even if they hugged him first in happiness or whatever.

        • “I really wish we knew how to strike a better balance between protecting children, and viewing all men who want to work with kids as Potential Perverts Until Proven Otherwise.”

          Simple: We stop thinking of men as potential perverts until proven otherwise. While I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that IF a child is sexually abused or assaulted in a child care center, it is more likely to be a male, we are talking about numbers very far to the right of the decimal point. The children are protected.

          • I’ve looked into some related matters (the article & studies cited actually dealt with domestic abuse), and from the figures I’ve seen:
            1. Females are just as likely as males to be the aggressor in violent situations;
            2. 65% of child injuries reported are caused by females; and
            3. Co-habiting couples are 33 times– not 33%, but 33 times— more likely to be involved in instances of domestic abuse than married couples.

            The article itself dealt with protection orders (often ex parte) used as SLAPPs (strategic lawsuit against public participation) in divorce proceedings; most of it government-funded. It’s become a big industry since the mid-90’s.
            Actually, such things constitute an unlawful seizure and are actionable under 42 USC 1983 (1. Defendant intentionally engaged in acts that led to or constituted the seizure; 2. the acts subjected plaintiff to a “seizure;” and 3. the “seizure” was unreasonable.) The difficulty here is that most property interests (unlike liberty interests) are established by state law, and as such are not actionable under section 1983.
            The essential elements are somewhat different for establishing probable cause for the execution of a warrant, which might be more appropriate in such circumstances.

      • As a man in early childhood, it is situations like these that (in part) drive men away from the profession. Which casts a further shadow on those that do remain in the field. Rinse and repeat.

        I am pretty vigilant about protecting myself but there is only so much I can do. Sometimes an immediate action needs to take place and the proper precautions can not be taken. While I never faced accusations, I did have an uncomfortable situation arise where a supervisor attempted to enact an unofficial policy barring me from every assisting a child in the bathroom, despite the fact that instituting this policy would have either A) left me incapable of performing my most basic duties or B) would have required a female counterpart at all times, thus reducing the number of adults attendant to children in other parts of the center and upping real risk factors there. The woman was well-intentioned and was responding to a parent concern and attempting to avoid anyone being put in a bad position but it was not well thought, from either a logistical perspective or a legal one. I was on my way out for other, amicable reasons, so I didn’t do much of anything about it outside of register my disgust.

        If folks realized the harm we were doing to our children by eliminating so many potential positive male role models from their lives because of fear mongering and hysteria, it’d be the witch hunters we’d be locking up.

        • Kazzy, I almost wrote above something to the effect of “I don’t know why any man in his right mind would risk working with small children today because of these kinds of witch hunts.”

          Then I remembered that you do, and didn’t want to seem like I was casting aspersions on yr mental health. 🙂

          • No worries. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been largely insulated from any real issues.

            Two spring to mind:

            1.) The one I alluded to above. Basically, what happened was a girl needed help wiping in the bathroom. This was my first gig out of college (I had worked in EC before but not a full time, official teaching gig) so I didn’t know much about wiping butts. But I was the only one available (other staff in the immediate area, all preoccupied) so I went in and helped the girl out best I could. I apparently didn’t do that well because she went home with her underwear slightly soiled. Mom inquired and she informed mom that Mr. Kazzy helped her out. Mom had a lot of individual trust in me (or so she claimed) and we had a good relationship, but she was a single mother who had been burned by the girl’s father and came from a fairly traditional Muslim upbringing (she herself was not particularly tradition but I’m sure it informed her worldview). She approached my boss to discuss her discomfort, which initially led to my boss informing me that I should avoid helping that particular child before deciding that I shouldn’t help any child. No accusations of any kind were levied but there was obviously an undercurrent of “distrusting men”.
            2.) I had two boys in my glass, one who came from a same sex (both male) couple and one who came from a heterosexual couple that were fairly religious (Christian, maybe Catholic). Let’s call the first one Sammy and the second one Calvin. Sammy kissed Calvin, perhaps more than once. Calvin didn’t like this (or at least his parents didn’t) and they emailed me about it. I informed them that it was natural for young children such as Sammy to misunderstand appropriate displays of affection and that I would work with the boys to solve the problem; in the meantime, I encouraged them to talk with Calvin about his right to refuse any form of physical contact (whether or not it would be otherwise “appropriate) so that he could properly self-advocate. They blew their tops. We had to have a sit down meeting wherein the father wanted me to go on record stating that I didn’t think it appropriate that little boys kiss; I expanded to say that children of any gender should not be kissing but that I would not shame a child of making an innocent mistake. We calmed things down then but I was latter summoned into an administrator’s office to be given some helpful hints… make sure my door was always open or at least the window was unblocked; avoid being alone with Calvin; etc. The message was clear. Oh yea, and Calvin’s parents made it explicitly clear that they had nothing against Sammy’s dads, which made it pretty clear they DID have something against them, or at least their “lifestyle”. My hunch is that they thought I was gay and together with the gay dads were conspiring to make their son gay. Again, no direct accusations (at least none that came to me) but another unseemly undercurrent.

            There were other things along the way… many parents have admitted after-the-fact to being concerned when they found out their child would have a male PreK teacher (usually when I was new to the school). It is comforting to know that I am capable of putting these fears to rest but it is really, really frustrating to know that they will likely always be there.

            Now, don’t get me wrong. Sending a kid to PreK is hard and scary for parents. Many will look for ANY reason to fret. A male PreK teacher is a perfect source of angst.

            But, yea, it is frustrating. If I had to deal with more overt stigmatization/doubt/questioning/whatever, it probably would make me question my career choice. And as cocky as this may sound, I think kids would suffer as a result.

  7. People are complicated. Some of them do absolutely amazing things, like making great movies or coaching winning teams or tending a congregation, and also do horrific things, like sexually molesting children.

    Pedophilia must be a horrible thing to live with; always on two levels, knowing something is wrong as defined by society, and yet right as defined by your own attraction. And I say this as the victim of a pedophile, as someone who’s had to comprehend the beloved person who turned into a monster.

    And that’s the key here: the grooming. It’s a long-planned crime. A big part of it is the befriending of the child’s adults, being the person who’s too good to be true, so that as one of those adults, when the doubts surface, you work to brush them aside, because you’ve seen the good the person does.

    I hope Clash isn’t a pedophile. I’m pretty sure that if he is, more victims will surface. And more adults will struggle with the good he’s done, hopelessly trying to reconcile it with the harm.

    But most of all, I hope and wish for a world where someone who’s attracted to children — and teenage boys are still children — can find a way to admit what their attractions are, and for a world where there’s some help to keep them from doing harm. Because right now, as Clash’s predicament so clearly shows, you’re either a great guy or a pedophile; and there’s nothing in between; no help, no hope, no openness, and no treatment.

    • Just got to say, that may be one of the most humane ways I’ve seen the topic discussed, remarkable in its own right and especially so coming from someone with your experiences in life.

      Thanks for sharing it.

    • I want to echo Russell’s sentiment. I always bristle when folks speak of pedophiles as if they are inhuman (I have a friend who responds to my “Animals have no rights” position with “They should have at least as many rights as pedophiles”). I don’t know what drives folks to do that. And I think, as a society, we should fiercely protect our children. But that does not mean we need to demonize folks who likely are dealing with something that is largely beyond their control.

      Thanks for your perspective, Zic.

    • Clash isn’t accused of being a pedophile. A pedophile is someone who is sexually attracted to prepubescent children. It is biologically unnatural and considered a psychiatric disorder. If the accusations against him or true then what Clash did was wrong, but not because it’s biologically unnatural. It’s because of the legal and career consequences. I’m not saying that when an older person has sex with a sexually attractive post-pubescent adolescent that there is no victim (although I have my doubts about these accusers). They just aren’t victims of pedophilia.

      To put it another way I can compare Clash to Sandusky, which is a comparison I’ve seen elsewhere. Sandusky’s victims were prepubescent children he found with his foster care charity. Clash’s accusers, if being truthful, were high school age kids that called a gay chat line looking for sex, and now are claiming to be damaged by that sex.

      So basically those two shouldn’t be lumped together, and Clash shouldn’t be labeled a pedophile.

  8. Here’s more:


    “A guide to the many non-angles you will see covered. There just aren’t enough real angles to go around”

    (amazing website btw)

  9. Interesting comments. This is one of those situations that raises so many emotionally-charged issues that its hard to know where to begin. But I guess given where the thread starts, I would want to begin by comparing this scandal to the other ones mentioned – Sandusky and Polanski to start. I don’t see this as being similar at all.

    In those two, you have men who either in the case of Polanski rapes a young girl – 13 years old at the time after essentially drugging her. He was someone who was given access to her for professional reasons, and so was also acting in loco parentes in one sense – it is a violation on every level.

    With Sandusky, you have children – true children without a strongly developed sense of their own sexuality – being molested, raped, by a man who accesses them through an organization created to protect them, and grooms them by exploiting the most fundamental of trust relationships – with the boys, with the mothers, with the organization etc.

    The accusations against Clash seem to me to be different. It’s easy enough to say – and I would – that what he did was wrong – and also illegal. But in terms of the actual effect on the teens involved – I don’t buy that it is likely to be damaging in the same way, or, depending on the details – at all. These teenagers were looking for sex – actively of their own – that’s how they met Clash to begin with.

    16 year olds may not have the best judgement – they generally don’t – but they are also not children either and it was in fact their own decision and desire to seek out sex. And whether they knew the real age of the Clash, they knew based on what they claim he told them that he was an adult at least 14 years older than them. Clash was no-one with any hold over them – not friend, teacher, mentor, family, friend of family – he existed outside of the framework of these teens lives, meaning he also had no control over them, and they could walk away from the situation at any time without consequence, and certainly never had to return. In fact, the travelled TO him with the express idea of having sex. He apparently also didn’t use his stardom as a lure, either, operating under a pseudonym (hardly a crime on the internet).

    So, here you have several teenagers who wanted to have sex, found a possible anonymous sex partner who was older than them, chose to have sex with him in some form, and now, as adults are aware of this person’s celebrity and so are bringing lawsuits for in one case $5 million in damages. Perhaps more will come out about what went on that will make it more sinister than that. But until then, I really have to say that this is not paedophila and certainly not the deep violation the other cases clearly are, and I would want to understand a lot more about how these teens were somehow “compelled” to travel to this strangers apartment and have sex with him and how this has damaged them for life. I would find it more likely that it was at worst a bad experience that they chose – and then moved on from.

    This doesn’t excuse Clash’s lack of judgement – or his violation of the law. But I think it puts it squarely into another realm from the other cases.

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