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When Cults Collide: How Big Sports and CEO Worship Threaten Societies

Jerry Sandusky will likely go to prison. But when we foster poisoned values, crimes will continue to be committed-- and condoned.

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College sports mega-programs, like football and basketball, are not built to nurture good and useful citizens, but to produce athletes who can draw in money through ticket sales or athletic boosters. Many of the values that make people good citizens, like sympathy and mutual support, are antithetical to the goals of sports teams. Programs receive millions of dollars of public funds, very often at the expense of education. The norms and values of the cult and those that make for a healthy society diverge.

Cults share several tell-tale characteristics, such as ritualistic activities, active recruiting, promises of reward or fame for converts, expectations of sacrifice for the group, and threats of humiliation and punishment for lack of compliance. And they always have charismatic, authoritarian leaders.

The Rise of the CEO Cult

The cult of the CEO in American business sprouted in the fertile soil of the go-go 80s and 90s. Instead of choosing knowledgeable insiders or “organization men” who had risen up through the ranks, businesses began to look outside for celebrity leaders. As the structure of corporate ownership changed, big investors like mutual funds sought bigger profits. So they financed leveraged buyouts by private equity firms that would then toss out old management. When states passed anti-takeover laws, the investors took to pressuring boards of directors and often acting together to elect their own directors. CEO heads rolled left and right. If a company was performing badly, it must be the CEO. Likewise, if a company did well, the CEO got all the credit.

Lee Iacocca became a star for saving Chrysler – never mind the $2-billion federally guaranteed bail out and United Auto Workers’ givebacks that played major roles. Jack Welch earned hero status at General Electric with his philosophy that if you weren't #1 or #2 in an industry, you were a loser. His stardom completely obscured the tens of thousands of workers whose sweat actually produced the products. Welch was celebrated for his callousness towards workers, nicknamed "Neutron Jack" for his specialty of decimating workforces while leaving building in tact.

No longer a sober administrator pretty much unknown outside the company, the CEO was a charismatic leader, understood to embody quasi-religious vision, values, and mission. Who dared to question a sacred leader? (See Craig Lambert's " The Cult of the Charismatic CEO" in Harvard Magazine).

Boards heaped piles of money on such deified individuals, offering crazy perks and rewards regardless of performance. Enron, Tyco, and Woldcom all had celebrity CEOs who blew up the companies they were hired to lead. The recent financial crash exposed the recklessness and malfeasance of CEOs like Richard Fuld (Lehman Brothers), Ken Lewis (Bank of America), and Angelo Mozilo (Countrywide Financial). In a recent report by Michael Hudson, management guru Cynder Niemela, fired from Countrywide after challenging fraud against customers and mistreatment of employees, describes "a toxic culture ruled by fear and top-down intimidation." Plenty of CEOs like Mozilo are still leading corporations, some have government appointments, and none of them have gone to jail. Inept, corrupt, and self-serving individuals continue to inflict damage on the economy and suffering on millions of people, all the while collecting astronomical salaries.

The CEO reigns as Grand Imperial Poobah of the business universe, invested by boards with powers that would be envied by an Oriental despot. Gone are the committees and oversight mechanisms that would have kept such people in check in the 1950s. They exercise a tight flow of information, and they keep close tabs on potential whistleblowers. But this model no longer afflicts only corporations. It has infected everything from non-profits to universities.