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.”

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