Calling Audibles Part IX: Choose Your Demons
Come out of the man, you unclean spirit! What is your name?
My name is Legion, for we are many. ~Mark 5: 8-9
Getting to know your own demons is a pretty painful process. The man who was controlled by his demons in Mark’s gospel was basically a raging lunatic. He lived in a graveyard. He couldn’t be restrained even with chains. He couldn’t sleep and he spent his time “howling and bruising himself with stones.”
Once the demons were named and acknowledged, they left his body and he was in his right mind again.
Even with how hard it is to live with demons, naming and acknowledging them is even harder. Sometimes it even takes Divine intervention.
That’s one of the reasons we’d rather demonize other people—that keeps all of our own shadows under wraps. The tendency to demonize others—to heap all bad things, all problems of the world, and all the blame for what’s wrong onto a person other than ourselves is a well-worn habit in human life.
And in big time football this demonizing is not just an unfortunate tendency, it is a business plan. The compulsive firing of coaches year in and year out in football embodies this plan of attack—find someone to blame when things go wrong and get rid of them so the problems go away.
In football, there is no job security. Contracts are not job security. For head coaches, contracts may provide some guaranteed income when the gauntlet is lowered. But for most assistants, contracts are getting shorter and shorter assuring that institutions have to make less and less of a commitment to the relationship.
I know that in this day and age football coaches are not the only ones without job security. And they aren’t the only ones to suffer the ill effects of working for companies and institutions that don’t really seem to care about them as people. Many people are living with that kind of pain these days.
Football coaches, however, are in a business that is unapologetically brutal when it comes to the blame game. This sunk in for me in Chicago when I would hear fans cursing John’s name even when the special teams and defense made mistakes on the field. The demonization took on a life of its own. And the blame game had little to no connection to what was actually happening in that organization. In actuality there were deep problems, unhealthy personalities, and people jockeying for control and power. The demons were Legion, and the truth telling capacity of the overall system was severely compromised.
Butch Davis has also been demonized, especially in local media. Somehow he became the object of deep disdain even with all the things he did well. Even if you don’t agree with everything Coach Davis did (and there were times when I didn’t), you have to wonder about the timing of his firing and why it happened the way it did.
Several people have commented to me after Coach Davis was fired that “at least now we can get someone who cares about academics more than football.” I have corrected them each time–Coach Davis was very committed to academics. John and I have seen win at all costs mentalities up close, and Butch Davis does not have that mentality. Even so, the reality of his commitments to academics and to winning the right way gave way to a flood of projected demons onto him. And now that demonization distorts the whole staff that is left. Somehow now everyone is tainted by being a part of the Davis regime.
Demonization is potent—and once it starts, it can seep into even healthy places and find traction. Reality doesn’t matter anymore.
The demons become Legion—so many we can’t count them, so pervasive the truth can get snuffed out.
I guess in the football world there is something comforting about the temporary relief of anxiety that the yearly firings bring. Fears breed obsessions, which breed compulsions that temporarily relieve the anxiety. The compulsions become a quick fix that doesn’t really deal with the root fear itself. The compulsive firing of coaches is a quick fix for the deep-seated fears that institutions have.
What could these fears be? I am sure they are as varied as the institutions themselves. But perhaps they are all a variation on a theme: the fear of insignificance, or worse yet, the fear of disappearing all together.
And what would happen if football disappeared? What would institutions lose?
In big time football, football programs are golden calves because they are cash cows. Fear of losing football equals fear of losing money equals fear of not being able to exist the way institutions have grown accustomed to existing. Put on top of that an increasingly acute sense that there are scarce resources to go around. Then throw in some of the more destructive of human vices like greed, ego-mania, and envy and you have a full fledged systemic pathology on your hands.
So the football world has created these collective compulsions that keep the system living and breathing, but not all together healthy. The anxiety has a partial relief valve when things are about to blow; but the root fears remain in tact and the real demons continue to flourish.
We are at that time of the year now, when things are about to blow. Every year at this time, no matter if a coach is headed to the chopping block or not, the collective anxiety level in football is raised to a fevered pitch. There are very few coaches who are actually enjoying their lives at this time of year. The stress level can be unbearable.
Right now at UNC the coaches have worked hard and done their absolute best to focus on beating Duke this past week (which they did and did well), knowing all the while that what is ahead means profound personal uncertainty. They have done good work these last two years—holding a team together in the midst of many, many upheavals and disappointments. They have served this university well. The community should be proud of them and the things they have accomplished. But stress is high and something has to give. In times like these the norm in football is for demonizing to take people captive–from fans to university officials to even members of staffs themselves. People are looking for people to blame, people to take the fall so deeper issues can be avoided.
And there must be a savior out there who can come and make things feel good again.
The flip side of demonization is how much people want a savior to come and fix everything. So athletic directors and college presidents have to make a splash with a big-name hire and recycle all the expectations heaped on the last coach onto the new coach. Bringing in someone new gives people the false comfort that everything will finally get fixed. Maybe they will be the one to make the demons go away—and we won’t really have to look at our own.
Leadership matters, but it can’t perform miracles unless the collective is ready to name the demons.
The audible here for big time football—not just at UNC, but for every institution who is looking to clean house for a fresh start—is to commit to an exorcism that involves broader systems and not just individuals. Stop using demonization of others as your business plan. Start calling plays that call on the whole system to tell the truth about its demons and find new health and real possibility for change.
What if every big time football program asked itself what its demons’ names are? At UNC the demons may be a lack of hard honesty with itself and an aversion to outside perspectives. At Penn State the demons perhaps involve keeping secrets for some perceived good of the whole. At other places maybe it’s a sense of entitlement, at still others perhaps a culture of deception and backstabbing.
Getting to know your own demons is a painful process, but the alternative is that they control us more and more. If you can open your eyes to what we’re up against, changing the way we play the blame game is the best hope for finding our right minds. “Demons, what are your names? Legion, we are many.”
10 thoughts on “Calling Audibles Part IX: Choose Your Demons”
Thanks for your consise summary of the issues swirling around big time collegiate sports. I thought the N&O on Saturday did a remarkable job of ‘trying to look at the bigger picture’ and to point out some of the demons that may not have been apparent to those of us outside looking in. I’m just home from church and haven’t opened the paper. The successes on Saturday, notably at UNC and NC State, (I thought) were well reported with a sense of balance.
God Bless you and your family during this difficult time.
Peace and Gratitude, David
Thank you for your comments, David. I appreciated the article about the UNC Seniors on Saturday, too. Unfortunately I haven’t seen that same kind of balanced reporting at work at the N & O these last several months. Between the print media and the internet, the demons of big time football too often get fed a steady diet that keeps them alive and well. I think there is a grey area when it comes to where straight reporting stops and editorializing starts in sports reporting. In the last 15 years with the explosion of the internet and social media I think these dynamics have even sharper edges for coaches. I hope you’ll keep reading and keep commenting. I appreciate your perspective.
Good morning Marcia. The demons that are paraded before us in the guise of good, the guise of “everyone is doing it”, the guise of “name your demon” are legion. We all have the choice of what demons to pick, don’t we? Or, we can choose NOT to pick a demon. We hope that we have been brought up with morals. principles, values, that help us make good decisions, but in the long run, we are often consumed by the very demons that we hoped to avoid. Those we thought we could trust have become consumed and we find that we are beaten down and must join them to survive. But we don’t. We have a God that will help guide us and protect if we stand firm. Thanks for your insights. Prayers to you and John.
Thank, Toni. I think you are right–the demons that threaten us to the most are sometimes the most subtle and the very things to which we unknowingly grant control in our lives. Without Divine help and healing I am not sure any of us could escape their grip. Thank you for your prayers, too. Keep reading!
I just read your 9 blog posts and was quite moved. Good for you for standing up and exposing the hypocrisy of college football, the corrupting power of money, and the lack of integrity by those who pretend to uphold it. I was especially moved by your post about racism.
My wife and I are involved with Mecklenburg Ministries, an interfaith organization in Charlotte that offers a program called “Souls of White Folks,” which exposes the role of white privilege in shaping our views of the world. It pains me to see football players of colors are viewed (and abused) in general and at UNC during the past two years in particular. Good for you for being an agent for change.
Thank you for reading and for your helpful comments. I know some about Mecklenburg Ministries and support the good work that you all do. I am actually the co-chair of the planning team for the 2012 National Multicultural Conference to be held in Charlotte in April 2012. Can you send me some more information about your program on white privilege through the contact email on my website? I’d love to see if there is a way to get this plugged in to our program.
Thank you for all of the good work that you and your wife do. Sending prayers your way for strength, perseverance, and a bright vision to keep your efforts and energy up. Hope you’ll keep reading.
Your audibles are the most enlightening comments on the current issues in big time football. You have made me think about my own conduct which at times has demonized those who labor each Saturday. Only coaches are graded every Saturday by 60,000+ people in the coliseum up or down. Thanks for your insights…
Thanks for reading and commenting, Matt. I think it’s great that you are taking this opportunity to examine your own habits. We’re all the better for such a courageous move. Would that we could all be so bold! All the best to you, Matt. I hope you will keep reading.
Thanks for the gift of your thoughts.
Compassion, generosity of spirit and keeping the proper perspective are keys to a happier life, though they may make message boards a bit less interesting.
Thank you, David. I think you are right. And I would add that the “interesting” message boards don’t feed us in the long run. They are sort of like junk food–they might taste pretty good at the beginning, but the more you eat them the unhealthier you get. I generally try to avoid a lot of those message boards, but have taken a look at a few lately for my work on my book on sports and theology. The trajectory of many of the conversations in a hateful direction is disturbing and sad to say the least. And most of the conversations are done “in disguise” by people who don’t use real names. It is a virtual outlet for people’s worst tendencies. The most dangerous part is how it can feed mentalities beyond itself and actually create a more overarching mentality or opinion. We certainly see that dynamic in things other than sports–for good and for ill. I am glad you shared your comment here, David. And I hope you will keep reading and commenting.