The Boy Scouts of America is not exactly confirming reports that it’s considering bankruptcy, but it’s not exactly denying them either. It’s hard to see how the organization has much choice. The many lawsuits it is facing because of abuse by adult leaders is in any case likely to deplete the group’s resources.
The accusations against the Boy Scouts are horrific, and if they’re true, the organization ought to be made to suffer. But I hope it doesn’t die. There’s simply no other group that does what the Boy Scouts do: Using outdoor skills and peer mentoring, scouting teaches self-discipline, confidence and leadership. Small wonder that the ranks of Eagle Scouts include such a remarkable range of leaders: Neil Armstrong and Michael Moore, Gerald Ford and Michael Dukakis, Albert Belle and Elmo Zumwalt. (Oh, and Michael Bloomberg.)
No doubt my friends on the right will see the Boy Scouts’ troubles as more evidence for their “Get woke, go broke” meme. But I don’t think the Scouts are suffering because of their decision to allow LGBTQ leaders. True, that policy change lost them the Mormons, long a significant pillar of scouting, but if you’re a nominally secular institution whose edifice rests on the continued participation of those of a single faith, you’re already in trouble.
In any case, what’s really hurt the Boy Scouts is surely the changing interests of boys. Keeping up with the times has proved a struggle. There are now merit badges in geocaching and digital technology. But the young just aren’t as excited as they once were about camping, or getting every part of the uniform exactly right, or learning the right way to care for the flag.
As to my friends on the left, they’ve never much liked the Scouts. Long before the brouhaha over gay leaders, the group was being dismissed as paramilitary protofascists. (Come to think of it, a lot of progressives still think that.)
Meanwhile, the decision by the Boy Scouts to rebrand as Scouting BSA and admit girls has brought more legal trouble. In their complaint, filed in November, the Girl Scouts charge that the Boy Scouts have engaged in trademark infringement and unfair competition. The complaint alleges that the public has been confused by the new emphasis, with many girls signing up for Scouting BSA when what they actually wanted was to join Girl Scouts. The Girl Scouts are also furious about claims that girls who join Scouting BSA will find more “adventure.”
Maybe they have a case, maybe they don’t. Either way, I am skeptical that it will ever come to judgment. When I used to teach intellectual property, I told my students that courts hate litigation that pits the right side against the right side. Some years back, when the NAACP sued the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on very similar allegations, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit dismissed the case on the formal ground that the NAACP had waited too long to sue.
But even a cursory examination of the panel’s opinion leaves one with the sense that the judges had no interest in being caught in the middle of a spat between two organizations they plainly admired. The groups, the court concluded, were “brilliant but quarreling family members,” who “share common ideals and a distinguished common heritage.” The subtext was clear: The two of you will have to work this out.
Which I think describes the current brouhaha as well.
As you might have figured out by now, I was a Boy Scout. I have no grandly inspiring tale to tell of how I made Eagle. I quit after a year.
Still, I happen to have in my library a copy of the 1965 edition of the Boy Scout Handbook. Much of its focus is on asking boys what kind of men they want to be. Most of the advice is practical: how to treat burns, how to choose a campsite and (of course) how to tie knots. But what most influenced me is the handbook’s advice on how to think.
Practice concentration, the handbook urges. Constantly seek out new knowledge. Follow every opportunity to learn something new. If you’re in school, always go beyond the work you’re assigned. Come to understand every subject deeply. Observe the world around you. Unlock its secrets. And read. Read and read and read some more.
Although I was a Boy Scout for only a brief time, I am a better man for it. The organization must pay for what it’s allowed to happen to some of the boys in its charge. But I hope it once more comes to thrive.
By Stephen L. Carter
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. -- Ed.