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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.

The silence. The lack of accountability. The blind loyalty. The case of Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky (who waived his right to a hearing on Tuesday) and similar horrors have shown us that under certain circumstances, otherwise normal people will stand by in the face of crimes as heinous as systemic child abuse and child rape. How could it happen that a university would protect a football program over the lives of innocent children?

The real question is: How could it be otherwise?

The Church of Football

Big Sports in America, along with the corporate religion of CEO-worship that infuses it, exhibits cult-like features that make the tolerance of criminal activity something we should expect. When cults collide, conditions emerge that are poisonous to healthy, law-abiding, open societies.

When I arrived at the University of Georgia in 1988, one thing was clear. Football was a very big deal. On a typical game day, sorority women decked out in demure Laura Ashley dresses and stockings accompanied frat guys in red ties to Sanford Stadium, the 14th largest such sports venue on Earth. Our stockings served a dual purpose. They signaled the importance of the occasion, and they allowed us to slide Ziploc bags filled with Bourbon just inside our thighs—a place the cops wouldn’t dare frisk us. Getting obliterated on game day was a hallowed tradition. The sacred space “between the hedges,” as the playing field was fondly known, was designated for autumn bacchanalias intense enough to render the odor of Bourbon permanently intolerable to me.

Football was a realm unto itself in Athens, GA. Coach Vince Dooley was a god, and his players were strange godlings with steroid-pumped physiques, entitled to their own luxurious dorm complexes complete with swimming pools. They got special academic treatment; a row of hulking men shoe-horned into tiny desks in the back row meant an easy class. The university even sponsored a prestigious group of attractive female students known as “Georgia Girls.” These women were not cheerleaders – their role was to join recruiting expeditions to high schools and, you know, recruit.

Such was the Church of Football, southern-style.

In his essay “ The Sporting Spirit,” George Orwell outed the cult-like aspect of large-scale sports, which arose in the 19th century in England and the U.S. in a way the world had not seen since Roman times. He debunked the myth that serious sports was nothing more than good clean fun. Sure, it’s possible to play harmless games, but when losing means shame for the whole group, barbaric instincts surface. The competition takes on the character of warfare, where winning is the virtue, and getting in the way of winning is the vice. Intense rivalries beget a culture of cheating. Serious sports aren’t about fair play, concludes Orwell, but rather “hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

Along with the rise of nationalism, big time sports grew as heavily financed activities that could draw huge crowds and inspire extreme loyalty. People learned to identify with larger power units and to view everything in terms of competitive clout. Organized games flourished in urban communities where workers lived sedentary and confined lives without much chance of creativity or physical release. Cursing the other team on game day was an outlet for pent-up sadistic impulses.

In  Understanding Power, Noam Chomsky notes that large-scale sports encourages anti-social human psychology and passive acceptance of traits like aggression. “It’s hard to imagine anything,” he observes, “that contributes more fundamentally to authoritarian attitudes than this does.” (See this video).