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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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Insanity of Insanities

As the salaries of corporate CEOs began to skyrocket, other sectors of society felt obliged to keep up. The position of university president came to look more like that of a private sector CEO: the priority was no longer education, but rather fund-raising, maintaining political influence, and channeling those quasi-religious elements believed to inhabit his corporate counterpart. Once upon a time, internal candidates like provosts and deans were considered viable contenders for the job of president. But that changed as universities increasingly aped the practices of the corporate world. They wanted stars. And they were prepared to pay for them, right out of students’ pockets.

The New York Times reports that over the 1999-2000 to 2009-10 decade, the average pay of university presidents at the 50 wealthiest universities increased by 75 percent, while the pay of professors rose only 14 percent.  A recent report by the Chronicle of Higher Education showed that by 2008, thirty private college and university presidents earned more than $1 million during the 2008 fiscal year. The late Bernard Lander, founder and president of Touro College, topped the list, earning a jaw-dropping $4,786,830 in 2008 (including $4.2 million in retroactive pay and retirement benefits).

Lavish as their salaries may be, few college presidents can match the Big Sports coaches they "employ." In a time of tight budgets and instructional spending declines, the salaries of coaches have soared. In 2011, the average compensation for a major-college head coach is $1.47 million, a jump of nearly 55% in six seasons. In his first season as head football coach at Florida State, Jimbo Fisher enjoyed a $950,000 raise, bringing his salary to a hefty $2.8 million, which is nothing compared to Mack Brown, head coach of the University of Texas’s Austin Longhorn football team, who pulls in $5 million.

School officials like to say that coach salaries come from TV, media and marketing contracts. Not so, reported USA Today: 80 - 95% of Division I-A athletic departments must draw on university or state funds or student fees to pay coaches.

William Lazonick, director of the University of Massachusetts Center for Industrial Competitiveness and president of the Academic-Industry Research Network, told AlterNet that such stratospheric salaries for leaders are detrimental: "Whether in business corporations or universities, extraordinarily high pay for those at the top separates their interests from those of the people in the organizations that they are purportedly leading, and indeed these so-called leaders put in place administrative procedures to enhance and protect their personal interests."

Football, the favorite sport of corporate America, produces the most revered celebrity coaches. Penn State’s Joe Paterno represents the sort of sanctified end state of this system where cults collide. Like many of his coaching colleagues, “JoePa,” as he is fondly known, has been considered one of the most august citizens of his state, worshipped by millions, accountable to no one, and the recipient of a $1 million per year salary. To many, it seems irrational that such a man would fail to notify the police when a graduate assistant told him that he had witnessed defensive coordinator Jerry Sandulsky sodomizing a young boy in the shower – a crime normally considered to be among the most depraved in society. And there's also a lot of shock over why no one else in the system who was informed did so, like erstwhile president Graham Spanier. But, as sociologist Max Weber has pointed out, charismatic leadership is inhospitable to rationality. The authority invested in laws and institutions tends to wither in the leader’s wake. The importance of average people diminishes. As recent accounts attest, Spanier was a typical specimen of the university president-as-CEO: controlling of information, hostile to whistleblowers, fond of secrecy, and a believer in centralized authority. Of course, he was not as powerful as Joe Paterno, who, in the words of former Penn State athletic director Bill Byrne "helped choose the trustees" and "owns the community." So when JoePa went, he went, too.