Last week, Florida State settled the Title IX lawsuit brought against them by Erica Kinsman by agreeing to pay out just under one million dollars and commit to five years of sexual assault prevention, awareness, and training programs. A few days ago, Cal admitted their own liability in the 2014 death of Ted Agu after a workout, a step the university said was designed to "focus the legal proceedings on appropriate compensation for the family." The Agu family didn't put a dollar figure in their complaint, but it's not hard to imagine that award being very, very high.
These two cases don't have a ton in common. Kinsman's case was a federal action; Ted Agu's family is in state court. Cal chose not to contest liability while FSU specifically denies any wrongdoing in their settlement agreement. Florida State was litigating against someone unassociated with the football program. The victim in the Cal lawsuit was a walk-on defensive lineman.
Then there are the similarities. Both cases are about alleged institutional conduct that, at best, is grossly incompetent and, at worst, is frighteningly callous. Both concern the failure of those institutions to protect members of vulnerable populations.
Oh, there's also the thing almost every civil suit has in common: money. In a contract dispute or a lawsuit about property damage, money's a fine resolution. But thousands or millions of dollars don't undo physical and emotional trauma. They don't bring back dead sons or daughters or parents. Settlements and jury awards wind up being a very poor substitute for trust, for security, for peace of mind -- the things you really lose when the people responsible for protecting you and your loved ones fail to do their jobs.
So when Mitch Albom says he'd feel better about the FSU settlement if Erica Kinsman donated whatever she gets to charity, he's telling you two things. The first is that he believes Kinsman's received some sort of windfall she doesn't deserve. (And so, I guess, has any other woman who wins a Title IX suit? Or anyone who wins money damages in a case that isn't directly about money? You'd think a writer could choose his words a little more precisely than this mealy-mouthed garbage.)
The second and equally insidious implication is this: if you take the money, you've somehow tainted the validity of your position. In Mitch Albom's mind, Erica Kinsman can either be someone fighting for justice or a money-grabbing opportunist. He's missing the point entirely. Kinsman didn't set up this highly imperfect system where we take human suffering and try to figure out the exchange rate in American dollars. Neither did the Agus, when they get whatever a court determines the loss of their son is worth. Neither did the people of Flint, who will probably end up with a check and a commitment to government-sponsored support programs instead of children with uncompromised health.
The money's not going to make any of them truly whole, but there's so little else to offer. Declarations of improved oversight and a recommitment to values. Training sessions and updated policies. The implied promise that the institutions that failed us will do better the next time around, that they won't make the same mistakes. Hopefully, those changes prevent someone else from suffering a similar loss down the line. They don't undo the past.
Albom's argument is based on the idea that you keep your dignity or virtue or serenity by choosing not to take the money. But the money's only on the table because you've already lost some or all of those things. The money isn't offered as a trade. It's compensation, and you're getting pennies on the dollar because that's the best, sadly, we can do.