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


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).

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.

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.

Cults are very, very good at hiding terrible things within their walls. This is true no matter which sector of society you find them in. When Big Sports and corporate religion come together, as they do so spectacularly in college football and basketball, you've got every element needed for the commission and condoning of the most devastating crimes: An entire swath of society trained to disregard the rules, to view people outside the system as enemies, to worship leaders, and to channel a host of anti-social values, including sadism.

Sandusky's waiving of the right to a hearing signals that his lawyers may be hoping for a plea deal that would automatically send him to prison without the need for a trial. So some boys may be safer. But until we put in place systems that inhibit the growth of such conditions, we can be sure that such crimes will continue. In some other university, in some other town. Maybe yours.


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