Archived Story

Common sense needed in MSU coach case

Published 11:00am Friday, January 4, 2013

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

A bald and naked baby lies on a blanket, smiling (or belching?), arms and legs in the air with genitals visible. Pornography? Nude photos of children splashing in a bathtub. Explicit sexual content? Home movies of naked toddlers cavorting in a lake. Adult sex video?

Way back at the beginning of the current school year, Todd Hoffner, the coach of the Minnesota State University, Mankato, football team was, first, suspended from his job and, second, arrested on charges of child pornography. He had used his smartphone to take short videos of his very young children, who danced for him after taking their bath. The children were nude. There was another video of his daughter getting up at night to walk to the bathroom. She was wearing underpants and a T-shirt.

Todd and Melodee Hoffner have been through a parental nightmare. What they thought were innocent family images capturing a moment of play and helping their oldest child with toilet training became evidence in a prosecutorial attempt to portray him as a sexual predator.

The other images, described at the beginning of this essay, have no connection to Hoffner’s case. They are images of me as a baby, my siblings and me in a bathtub and my cousins, siblings and me early one morning at the lake where my grandparents had a summer house.

When my parents took those pictures and my aunt filmed us skinny-dipping, were they creating erotic images? Did they become pornographers or predators?

I didn’t describe them, but we also have photo albums with pictures of our own children, in the bathtub, in the kitchen sink, crawling on a quilt. Are those also pornography? What about all those photos of naked babies and toddlers in photo albums across this community? All porn collected by sick and twisted pedophiles? All worthy of punishment?

Fortunately, in Hoffner’s case, the judge acted with more common sense than the prosecutor, and the case was thrown out, the charges dropped. The images were only pornographic for the prosecutor, and possibly a few others. I infer from what the judge said that she believes what they saw as “erotic” came out of their own imagination, not from the content of the images or the intentions of the parents.

Very young children are not aware of their sexuality, so nude dancing carries no erotic content for them. If they run about naked or touch themselves, there is no sexual intent. And the vast majority of parents who look at their children in bathtubs or while dressing them, or who chase naked toddlers down the hallway (because they escaped the bathroom when the parental back was turned) do not see this nakedness as provocative or desirable.

Unfortunately, in Hoffner’s case, the situation involved more than just lawyers and judges. He works for a public institution of higher learning, with layers of rules and bureaucrats empowered to enforce them. He broke the rules by using the smartphone issued to him by the university for personal activity, and now he faces losing a job he loves (and is apparently quite good at).

He embarrassed the university by what happened. And I suspect the reaction of bureaucrats at the university to what was recorded by his device was more like that of the prosecutors; they saw porn because of their own imaginations, not because of the content of those videos.

This is the way bureaucrats usually operate. A rule or policy defines the boundaries, and if someone doesn’t obey the rule or policy, they must be punished. Justice does not matter. The individuals involved do not matter — no, not even the individual bureaucrat — because this is about the rule or policy, not the people involved or any extenuating circumstances. These bureaucratic situations rarely are resolved with compassion or mercy.

Do we need to be careful about children when perverse adults take advantage of their innocence to slake their disgusting appetites? Yes, of course. The newspapers provide details about those sorts of cases. Do we need to see all naked children as porn stars and their parents or guardians as predators? Absolutely not.

I sure hope somebody among the decision-makers at MSU in Mankato recognizes that and ends the Hoffners’ long nightmare.

David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.