Friday, September 8, 2017

My NFL Dilemma


The Steelers Diaspora knows no bounds...

A new NFL season is upon us. Usually I would be breathless with excitement about another season of following the Pittsburgh Steelers. But this year, I have a dilemma.

Some context is necessary. Rooting for the Steelers is not just being a sports fan, even a passionate one. For someone from Pittsburgh, it's more like being part of an ethnic group or religion, even with it's own rituals and liturgies. It's part of who you are.

The Steelers rise to football prominence and power coincided with the city of Pittsburgh reaching its nadir as the steel industry collapsed. Mills that lined the banks of the three rivers and supported the nation's war effort and post war boom employed workers by the tens of thousands. These mills shaped a region's identity and ethos. As the furnace fires were banked and doors shuttered, hearts and spirits broke. Even more, desperate workers fled the city in an ever flowing stream seeking economic survival creating a Pittsburgh diaspora across the country.

The Steel Curtain Steelers gave the city a sense of dignity and pride. Franco Harris' "Italian Army" bridged the gap between August Wilson's Hill and Italian Bloomfield.  When you arrive at the Pittsburgh Airport, you're met by two life size figures: George Washington in his French and Indian War era uniform and Franco stretching for the "Immaculate Reception".

The Rooney family never forgot it's immigrant Irish roots and kept the family home on the north side. The modestly appointed owner's suite always kept room for neighborhood kids every Sunday. The Rooneys, like the Maras in New York, were throw backs to a different era where football was a family game. (Actor Rooney Mara is a daughter of that era.) Steeler alumni tend to stay in the city and remain part of the city. It's all one fabric. And of course they play at Heinz field.

Sunday afternoons are a form of liturgy. (Not to mention that some Pittsburgh congregations have created black and gold liturgical stoles for their clergy for use during the ecclesiastical season of playoffs...). We gather in homes or in Steeler bars or those multi-screen sports bars carrying our "Terrible Towels" ( thank you Myron Cope of blessed memory) and seeking others wearing black and gold and for the next 3 hours feel like we're home again.

Throughout many changes in my own family, those Sunday afternoons were the one time we came back together. When we got two new cats, black and white and gold and white, we named them Troy and Casey. (True Yunzers will get that.)

It transcends class and politics. I remember visiting a nursing home during playoffs and seeing the beds festooned with black and gold. When my courageous pastor friend was brought up on ecclesiastical charges for celebrating the marriage of two women, all out of town trial  guests found a "Terrible Towel" in their welcome basket. Look, it just IS.

BUT....there are realities I can no longer ignore. First, there is the no longer deniable evidence of what the game does to the human brain. And the NFL has continued to go Big Tobacco on that one. I'm haunted by the image of Mike Webster's later years, to name only one. The anchor of the Steelers' Super Bowl offensive line and perhaps the epitome of its character reduced to paranoid dementia and homelessness from a damaged brain. That's hard to ignore.

Then there's the reality that was pointed out to me by my sports management graduate son. That even though the NFL is the richest of the big 4 sports, it's players share the LEAST in its profits, have the shortest careers and fewest guaranteed contracts and most life changing injuries and weakest union. Randy Newman's use of the "plantation" image is not far off. The fact that players are voluntary employees doesn't change the basic justice issues involved here.

And as if that were not enough, we now have the situation of Colin Kaepernick.
Repping Kaep
Essentially, for having chosen to take  a knee during the national anthem ( and where else in the world does every sporting event have to begin with the national anthem?) in support of the protest against the unabated killing of black persons by police, aka "black lives matter", Kaepernick has effectively been black balled by the NFL.

Look, I know all the qualifications. Yes, he turned down an offer. But yes, the 49ers would have released him had he signed. Would they have resigned him with a different contract? Who knows. And yes, he has sometimes been unwise and immature. Piggy socks? Uh, no...Castro t-shirt? Not so smart, but....Not voting? Well, not strategic but I actually  understand. .Most importantly, Kaepernick has shown a passionate desire to learn and grow and study his heritage and yes, put his money where his mouth is devoting millions of his own money to at risk youth. In essence, a responsible young man seeking to do what he can to better the world. One might think that admirable.

But when recent quarterback signings include second tier arena league journeymen, it can no longer be denied that there's a black ball, literally, for Kaepernick. The league has welcomed back countless domestic abusers and one notable perpetrator of animal cruelty. But somehow a dignified protect against injustice is too much.
Wearing Kaep at Maggie's

Family members have forwarded the call by group of black pastors to "black out the NFL". (( Hundreds rallied in front of NFL headquarters to call for a meeting. Folks I stand with in the city, like Gathering for Justice (, have made this their action for the fall.

As a side note, the NFL may be facing a bigger problem ultimately. While one of my sons will continue to participate in fantasy football for professional reasons, there is no passion there. Among my boys friends, many have turned off on the NFL. They still back their particular baseball teams in season. They are passionate about the NBA ...the whole league, not just teams. And not a few of their friends have season tickets for the NYCFC soccer team, which seems to have connected with millennials.

So here's my can I stay connected to the Steelers and my roots without supporting the NFL? Is it possible? How long should the boycott last? Until Kapernick gets a job? Goodall meets with the ministers? My one son compared it to do convincing his fraternity brothers to give up hazing. Just because it's tradition doesn't make it right. But the Steelers thing is more than tradition. It runs deeper. So this Sunday, what do I do?

I actually for the first time chose to miss a Steelers game in NewYork this preseason when it would have cost $225 to take my boys to a meaningless game the guys they want to see no longer appear in any ways.  $75 ahead to cheer for the laundry, as Seinfeld put it.

No comments:

Post a Comment