Therapy of the Masses: On Scientology, the National Football League, and ‘Going Clear’

By Ryan Henry Joe


What’s the psychological sensation realizing, all at once, that something you once held very dear is based on a scam?

Last weekend was fascinating for college football in Arizona.

On Saturday, my alma mater UCLA, lead by a true freshman quarterback named Josh Rosen, completely annihilated the University of Arizona, 56-30.

[EDIT: Annnnd UCLA just lost in an upset against Arizona State. FML.]

The next day however, my other college team, the San Francisco 49ers, showed up in the desert all dehydrated and shrivel-dicked, and that’s not good when you’re up against a pro team like the Arizona Cardinals.

If later in this post I reference this game again — an important match, as it was against a division rival — I will use only vagaries. Delving into specifics is kind of painful right now.

If this site were hosted on Tumblr instead of WordPress, I’d even call it triggering.

In any event, I am grateful Adam invited me into his book club, which has become a place of solace. I think of myself now as a fallen woman, having fled into the sanctum of a nunnery, where I will live out the rest of the NFL season — emerging in time for the 2016 Draft, when all past sins have been forgotten and life begins anew.

And speaking of sins, I confess to lightly cheating this week.

covercoverI didn’t have time to get through Going Clear, so I instead read (Excuse me: Re-read!) The New Yorker article that originated the book and saw (For the second time, thank you very much!) the HBO documentary.

Consider this transgression the literary equivalent of tossing a slightly deflated football.

I’m sure I’m not the only one this week who will spot parallels between the Church of Scientology, as depicted by Lawrence Wright, and the NFL. A while ago, I listened to the audiobook version of League of Denial, which is among other things a case study about how huge organizations use their considerable resources to dictate how they’re perceived.

coverStrategically, it’s not really that complicated: Just shout down any sources of dissent.

It’s easy to see how people initially got affiliated with the Church of Scientology. Paul Haggis, the writer-director whose willingness to talk publicly catalyzed Going Clear — The New Yorker article, the book, and the HBO documentary — recounted how he got involved when he was a struggling young writer. Scientology seemed like a self-help methodology during a time he personally needed a lot of help.

As his career grew, so did his loyalty to Scientology.

Football is similar. It’s therapeutic, both to those playing it and to those watching it. Yesterday, a co-worker of mine who played in high school and in a semi-pro league said it was great, after a day at the grind, to put on the pads and unload into an opposing player. For players who are especially promising and who aren’t wealthy enough to have a lot of easy options, football is also a means of economic escape.

And for fans, a shitty day can be enlivened by a great football match. And the commercials powering the NFL — with their idealized view of American life in which a family’s biggest problem is an unsightly grass stain on a pair of jeans — simply add to the wonderful escapism.

Attract followers when they’re young and vulnerable — Why does the NFL present itself as a family-friendly entertainment? Why did the Church of Scientology recruit up-and-coming Hollywood actors? — and they’ll defend you even when you’re at your ghastliest and most self-serving.

I sometimes wonder what Paul Haggis’s moment of revelation was actually like. In the documentary, he talked about how he eventually achieved enough status to read the mythos L. Ron Hubbard constructed around the religion he’d created. The one with the aliens, the lost souls condemned to Earth and dropped into volcanoes, etc.

His initial reaction was that it was all some sort of weird test. And then he realized that Hubbard earnestly meant all of that shit. What’s the psychological sensation realizing, all at once, that something you once held very dear is based on a scam?

Here, the parallels with the NFL end — at least for me. Yes, the NFL knew and hid the fact that head traumas sustained during the game can lead to long-term brain damage. But the supporting facts came in at a trickle, at such a pace that fans could build up a gradual tolerance to the NFL.

Even though I realize the NFL is motivated only by greed, and even though my team has found surprising new ways to suck ass, I am really not ready to quit pro football fandom.

49ers Sunday Prediction vs. Green Bay: A loss, 63-2. 49ers score their only points when Colin Kaepernick, following a 99 yard Jerryd Hayne kickoff return, throws a red zone interception. In the following Green Bay possession, running back Eddie Lacy, hobbled by an ankle injury is pushed back by linebacker Navorro Bowman and the Ghost of Justin Smith into the end zone, leading to the only points San Francisco will score, ever again.

Aaron Rodgers throws for so many touchdowns that the NFL caps his scoring at 63 and applies the additional points to his next matchup against the Bears, just to give Chicago an extra kick in the nuts.

The problem with personalized communications tailored around your favorite sporting events is that, everywhere you look, you’re reminded that your team got pounded.

Image Credit: Flickr.

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