Monday, July 23, 2012

Twilight of the Gods?

We are witnessing an amazing turn of events unfolding in the wake of what has been at State College, Pennsylvania over the past few years.  (You can read about the extraordinary NCAA sanctions against the Penn. State football program here.)

Just a few of my initial observations, in the wake of the NCAA announcement today. (These comments are a bit off the cuff):

1) Kudos to the NCAA, at least, for acting quickly and decisively on the damning Freeh report and the recent conviction of Jerry Sandusky for sexual abuse of minors. Some of the penalties seem especially fitting -- especially the steep fine and the vacating of the wins (which bumps Paterno from his pedestal).  Of course, it's impossible to put a monetary value on the damage that has been done to the young victims.

2) Why not the "death penalty"?  (By the way, I don't like using that phrase to denote something as trivial as the disciplinary suspension of a sports program.  It calls to my mind images, you know, of actual people being put to death, which for me is a little bit more serious than anything the NCAA mete out.)  Perhaps, in some ways, these punishments are worse? I'm not completely convinced.

3) I have a lot of problems with the NCAA and am convinced that big-time college sports programs and their host institutions are exploiting student athletes for tremendous gain in money, status and prestige.  Migh we hope that today's announement is a sign that the culture just might be changing at the NCAA?  Might we expect a more chastened, responsible organization that shows it values the lives young people above all?  Or is this an exception, a blip in the screen?

4) We need to see some follow-up that shows the NCAA is prepared to enforce a zero tolerance stance on sexual abuse at sports programs.  I would want to see a clearly delineated sexual abuse/safety policy that spells out very clearly will happen to any other program caught allowing similar atrocities.  This case is unprecedented:  Let's pray it is unique.

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5) It is a propos to discuss this repulsive and heart-rending scandal on a theology blog.
Christians (and Jews and Muslims) have a special kind of term for what has been happening at Penn State -- Idolatry.  (PSU is not by no means the only school where this false religion is practiced).

(Confession time:  I'm a lifetime fan of Alabama Crimson Tide football, and I "played" high school football, or at least attempted to do so.  So I feel I have at least some qualifications to make these observations.)

In this religion, salvation is equated with winning.  Having a winning program, annual bowl appearances and (for a program with the scope of Penn State) national championships.

The savior figure, quite often, is the head coach --  in this case, Paterno himself.  (Is it not ironic that the very name "Paterno" is etymologically rooted in the Latin word for "father"?  Think of the word "paternal.")  It will be very interesting to see how the university deals with the Paterno statute.  For some of supporters of "JoePa", no doubt, the events unfolding constitute a kind of martyrdom -- perhaps even a crucifixion. 

The priests of this faith are, primarily, the players themselves.  Just like the clergy of organized religions, the players are lionized, idealized and pulverized with unrealistic expectations -- as long as they are doing well on the field, that is.  When things go badly, the fans turn on the players pretty quickly.  As the high priest (normally), the quarterback is in the most precarious position within the life of the cultus.
The "church" or communion of saints is comprised of the the historic community of students, alums, donors and all others affiliated with or touched by the university and its football program, which includes many people who have never even set foot on the school's campus, much less matriculated there.

This religion comes complete with liturgies (e.g., pep rallies, game days) and feast days (homecoming / the bowls) and temples (stadiums).  Fans wear their "Saturday best" -- which sometimes means a painted bare chest.  Cheerleaders and marching band members serve as acolytes.

Of course, every religion demand sacrifice.  The ascetic rigor demanded of coaches and players in the gruelling summer preseason as well as during the seasons itself are well known.  And of course offerings are required for the faithful themselves -- money for tickets, products with the team logo and time off from work to attend bowl games, etc.  Donors give to support scholarships.  Professors make academic exceptions to accommodate the schedules of student athletes.  And so on.  In the case of PSU, top officials at the university were willing to put everything on the line -- even risking jail time themselves -- to cover up the scandal that threatened to rock the program.

Ultimately, even, like certain religions of the ancient near east, and even like some religions today, the football cult at Penn State made a very steep demand indeed -- child sacrifice.  And this extremity gives us a clue as to what kind of a god is actually worshipped in this sort of idolatrous religion.

The activist, lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow claimed that the "principalities and powers" exposed in the New Testament actually are embodied concretely in the ideologies, institutions and images that rule our world.  Ultimately, in his view, all of these forces are subject to falling under the power of idolatry.  But all idolatries and false religions worship one deity above all -- Death.

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