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Commentary: Survival is an institutional instinct

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 17, 2011 - Only 146 years after Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Missouri has finally decided to take a side in the Civil War. We've elected to join the Confederacy.

This surprising development was made public when the University of Missouri announced it would abandon its affiliation with the Big 12 to join the Dixie denizens of the Southeastern Conference. The unsurprising motivation for the move was, of course, money.

Mizzou had been a charter member of the old Big 8 Conference, which began play in 1907. In 1996, the Big 8 merged with four Texas schools from the defunct Southwest Conference and the Big 12 was born.

Among the casualties of the present maneuver is the storied competition between Missouri and Kansas -- the oldest collegiate rivalry west of the Mississippi. It seems as though the history and tradition universities invoke to solicit donations and sell tickets can be rather quickly forgotten when TV money is on the table. Perhaps one day, Tiger enthusiasts might learn to despise, say, the Vanderbilt Commodores as they once did the Jayhawks. To paraphrase Robespierre, you've got to be willing to break a few eggs if you're going to make an omelet.

Missouri is hardly unique in the shifting landscape of college athletics. Colorado and Nebraska -- both former Big 8 schools -- already departed for greener pastures. West Virginia has announced that it will join the Big 12 while Texas A&M anticipated Mizzou's move by bolting from the conference earlier this year to set up shop in the SEC.

As of this writing, there will be 12 teams in the Big 10 and nine in the Big 12 next year. Small wonder that standardized math scores are declining ...

The relationship between an institution and its supporters is distinctly asymmetrical. Sports loyalists, for instance, are admonished to back their teams through thick and thin. Those who only show up when things are going well are derided as "fair weather fans." True believers persevere through the dark days no matter how long they last, which explain why people still pay to get into Wrigley Field.

Yet, the fealty in this arrangement runs down a decidedly one-way street. The team is never expected to stick with a fan who's having an off year and thus cannot afford to pay for his tickets.

I'm reminded of an essay I read while in graduate school. I would like to properly attribute this reference, but the passage of time has dimmed memory and my current research efforts have failed to locate mention of it.

The forgotten author coined a term I believe he called "sociolarity," which he defined as the tendency for individuals to hold societal institutions in parental reverence. This insightful concept explains why friends should never argue religion or politics. Though you may merely intend to criticize an abstract idea, the person you're talking with may respond to your remarks as if you're insulting their mother.

The notion is similar to what Kurt Vonnegut referred to as "grandfalloonery" -- loosely understood as the mistaken belief that large affiliations provide a common destiny for their adherents. Last year, I wrote about a condemned prisoner who left this mortal coil after shouting, "Boomer Sooner!" -- the rallying cry of the University of Oklahoma football team. Though he and Sam Bradford -- an OU alum and the Rams' starting quarterback -- may have shared a preference about the college gridiron, it's difficult to argue that the two men wound up in the same boat.

Mitt Romney got it exactly wrong when he opined that corporations are people. Corporations are staffed by people and ultimately owned by them, but they are distinct, impersonal entities that exist solely to generate profit.

During the early 1970s, the Ford Motor Co. became aware of a design flaw in the placement of the gas tank on its Pinto model that made the auto susceptible to explosion when struck from behind. Rather than halt production to correct the problem, Ford decided it would be cheaper to simply pay off the next of kin and continue to produce the potentially lethal vehicle. It was a decision that was at once both morally reprehensible and yet made perfect corporate sense.

Sociolarity has again reared its ugly head in the unfolding scandal at Penn State University. There, an alleged child rapist was reportedly caught in the act while sodomizing a boy of about 10 in the shower room.

Had the offender been an anonymous groundskeeper, authorities would have been summoned at once. But because he was a respected assistant on the football coaching staff, the matter was hushed and he was allowed to retire to run a program for -- get this -- troubled boys. He was also allowed access to university facilities for years after the incident. Institutional survival trumped concern over defenseless youth.

Additional victims have now come forward and formal charges have been filed. Responding to initial reports of these developments, a large contingent of Penn State students rioted on behalf of the accused pedophile and his alleged protectors.

Remorse has since replaced outrage in the misnomered Happy Valley where the university is located. The plight of small boys has suddenly become more important than an untarnished institutional image. Like drunks awakening from a one-night stand, everybody seems to regret their role in the misadventure.

The moral of this convoluted tale is actually quite simple: Don't waste time worrying about an institution you may hold dear. Because when push comes to shove, it will always act to protect itself.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.

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