New Vikings receiver Greg Jennings told Minneapolis/St. Paul radio station KFAN last week that he was “brainwashed” in Green Bay, and only upon his journey to Minnesota did he see the light: That the rest of the NFL wasn’t full of jerks who are inferior in every way to the glorious Packers.
Or, as Jennings himself put it to KFAN:
“When I came over here, I was kind of brainwashed. There's no ‘kind of’ to it. Being in Green Bay, you're brainwashed to think anyone in the division is tiers below. And so coming over here, I meet the people within the organization, and I'm like, ‘Wow, these are really great people.’
“It's like everything that you know in Green Bay is the best, the best, the best, the best. And it's like total brainwashing. And I think you don't open your eyes to see what other teams have to offer unless you are in that position.”
Jennings’ revelation about the culture in Green Bay is interesting (though I doubt many Cheeseheads would be upset to learn that the team’s philosophy includes a heavy dose of “Vikings / Bears / Lions suck”), but does it really rise to the level of brainwashing?
That’s probably the wrong word, according to Steve Hassan, who runs the Freedom of Mind Resource Center, a facility in Newton, Massachusetts that that provides information to people looking to learn about the effects of brainwashing, and exit counseling for those looking to leave cults. “The whole issue of ‘mind control,’ or influence, is best viewed on a continuum,” he explains, “where one side is healthy, ethical, constructive influence, and the other side is unhealthy, unethical mind control.”
Hassan knows of what he speaks: He’s a leading expert in the field of brainwashing who, after leaving the Moon organization in the 70’s, has authored two books on the subject, lectured at universities including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, and works with clients seeking “deprogramming.” Though not familiar with Jennings’ comments, he weighed in on the nature of brainwashing—and while the wideout's description of Packers groupthink did raise some red flags, Hassan wouldn’t exactly place him on the spectrum next to Patty Hearst.
“Though I wouldn't call it ‘brainwashing', it’s certainly believable that he was culturally influenced by being in Green Bay,” Hassan says. “Especially in sports, where you need to believe that your team is better than all the other teams, there’s a cultivation of the mindset that’s kind of black-and-white, us vs. them. I wouldn’t necessarily say ‘good vs. evil’ like I might when discussing a religious group, but one can definitely objectify and stereotype others into a label or a box.”
That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though, if the players in Green Bay are encouraged to think independently even as they’re being urged to identify strongly with the Packers organization. “One feature of unhealthy influence is that people aren’t encouraged to think for themselves, and the locus of control is with an external authority figure—a guru, a leader, a coach, whatever," Hassan explains. "To hear Jennings say, ‘I thought those people were terrible, and now I’m here and I’m meeting them and they’re very nice,’ it reminds me of going to the Soviet Union after it fell.”
Neither Hassan nor I are in much of a position to say whether or not members of the Green Bay roster are being encouraged to think independently—but if the Packers are brainwashing their players, so to speak, it's because doing so likely helps them win.
“In order to cultivate cohesiveness in a group and feelings of superiority, you say that your team is better—it has more skills, a better quarterback, better training—and you put down the other teams, by saying they're weak, or they cheat,” Hassan says. “That’s part of psychologically constructing a reality that might help generate a better performance.”
With that in mind—and the fact that, since the Thompson/McCarthy axis has been up in Green Bay brainwashing the players, the team has been 74-38 in the regular season—maybe the question that Jennings and Vikings fans ought to be asking isn’t so much “do the Packers brainwash their players?” but rather “Why don’t the Vikings?” Dan Solomon lives in Texas. His work appears in Fast Company, Vulture, MTV Hive, and the Austin Chronicle. He has a dog named Dio.