May 22, 2012; Pittsburgh, Pa. - Hooking up with SteelerNation; Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger takes questions much like DC Steel City Mafia member Boss Steeler Chick does with BTSC's Ivan Cole. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
In the interest of providing comprehensive coverage of all things Steelers as well as taking advantage of the current lull resulting from the off season, I am redirecting the focus toward Steeler Nation, particularly its fans. The supporters of the team are just as much a part of the story of Steelers football as are the players and other members of the organization.
Usually once a week, Wednesday night, I spend some time with Arla talking Steelers football. Both of us are Pittsburgh natives residing in Northern Virginia and avid fans who always find plenty to discuss about the team. It is a testament to the numbers and diversity of the Steelers fan base in our area that though both of us frequent Steeler bars on game days, we have never watched a game in the same location. My area is also extremely well represented on BTSC. Homer J and PaVaSteeler are examples of the regular contributors to the discussion around here. And, of course, that doesn't include the many that regularly visit the site and don't post or comment.
This has left me wondering how to effectively network the fan base here in DC Metro and elsewhere. Arla, who is a card caring member in good standing with the DC SteelCity Mafia fan club (a branch of the worldwide SteelCity Mafia; "Uniting Steelers fans worldwide"), helped me out by getting me in contact with its leader Boss Steeler Chick.
Let us begin with the obvious; Boss Steeler Chick is not her real name. She thinks of it as an alter ego, speaking of it in the third person as we talk over brunch in a diner in Annandale, Virginia. I will not reveal her real name here (you can check out the website and Facebook pages for that information), but suffice to say that during the day she lives a Clara Kent (I grew up reading Superman comics) type existence as a, presumably, mild mannered legal secretary for a DC law firm.
She is a vivacious sort, not an unexpected quality for someone who is a leader of an army of fanatics (you do know that ‘fan' is a derivative of this word). She is also thoughtful and analytical in conversation, a nice combination that goes far in explaining her success at attracting hundreds to the DC SteelCity Mafia fan club, and literally thousands to her Facebook pages. Her official black SteelCity Mafia t-shirt combines with her blonde hair for a natural black and gold presentation. This is augmented by very tasteful Steelers earrings and Steelers shoes. If she were wearing this outfit in Pittsburgh it would be described as, I don't know, clothes? But in the Diaspora it is a statement, a beacon if you will. It does not surprise me in the least when she describes to me how people approach her in malls because of what she wears.
Boss Steeler Chick is also a Pittsburgh native. There was a time when I would have assumed that as a given. The fact is that of the ‘Bosses' and ‘Dons' that compose the national leadership of SteelCity Mafia only a fraction have any ties to Pittsburgh. In fact, the club originated in Tennessee. When I ask her about this she confirms the fact that the younger members of the club were born and raised locally. So, one of several things that I learned is that while Pittsburghers and ex-pats are still a major part of Steelers Nation, the number of ‘adopted' citizens is large and growing. This is a quality that I usually associated with Cowboy or Yankees fans; so many of whom have adopted the teams without having any ties to the city that it represents. It is now clear that the Steelers have been good enough for long enough that they have reached that elevated status as well.
It is fair to say that Boss Steeler Chick did not start out with the intention of being, well, Boss Steeler Chick. The job fell to her as others failed to adequately step up in response to the needs of the growing Steelers fan community in foreign territory. Nor has she done this without help. She credits former Steelers linebacker Mike Merriweather with playing a crucial role in lending his name and his person to her early efforts to organize fan and fundraising events in the area.
The revelation for me is how interdependent the relationship between fans and players can be. Boss Steeler Chick has enviable associations with current and former Steelers players. But it goes beyond just rubbing elbows with the guys you watch on Sunday afternoons. The success of the foundations and charitable efforts that players either initiate or support is predicated upon solid relationships and support from the fans. For example, Boss Chick (if that shortening of the name is acceptable) has been commuting regularly lately to Richmond in support of James Farrior's Foundation and the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, not easy, by the way, for someone who also has full time employment and a family. The temptation is to think of these types of activities as frivolous and one-sided, but as the conversation progresses it reminds me more of interactions I've had with directors of civic and nonprofit organizations tasked with community advancement. And as is common when one is about the business of promoting connections some pleasant unintentional consequences can result. At an autograph event in Chantilly, Virginia last month (I made brief mention of it in Weekend Check Down at the time) Boss Chick described the sense of awe and respect she observed in the face of Steeler Mike Wallace as he met former Steeler Franco Harris for the first time. She also spoke of the interaction she had at dinner later that day with former Bengal Ickey Woods (something that deeply impressed Arla as well).
She described her mission as "bringing Steelers fans together". And as we discussed what that meant it became clear that here was a person grounded in the Pittsburgh Way. The general practice of the SteelCity Mafia is to secure a venue for Steelers fans to have access to games (not a week to week guarantee when you don't live in Pittsburgh) and celebrate community. That venue is the Alley Cat in Alexandria, Va. She spoke of promoting a sense of "family" and keeping the experience affordable so that money does not become a barrier to participation. She talked of a need to be vigilant about behaviors that might separate or create cliques among the fans, including nixing a planned birthday celebration because of the possible perception of there being an ‘in' group. I was particularly impressed with the sensitivity she demonstrated to the fact that attending a sports bar can be a financially challenging experience for many fans at some point (perhaps all the time for some). The structural steps she took to insure that those who may be short on cash could still have access strongly reflected a very Pittsburgh sensibility to my mind.
It was refreshing that she spoke freely and without prompting about some of the negative aspects of fan culture. In relating a story about meeting former Steeler Jack Lambert at an autograph event she placed particular emphasis on the fact that she addressed him as "Mr. Lambert". She then went on to speak of the sense of license that some fans take with players. This is a subject that I am particularly sensitive to and, to be frank, has probably alienated me from the fan culture a bit. I have always been more than a little turned off by the unearned sense of familiarity and the lack of respect for boundaries that fans believe they are entitled to in their dealings with celebrities, in this case athletes. It is also something that turns me off when I see on this site that people refer to players in terms that bring to mind disposable gladiators. I suppose it was the same attitude that the Romans had that allowed them to cheer for gladiators, watch them die and then consider it nothing more than an afternoon's entertainment. But when I responded to her that I believed that this was just a general characteristic of fan behavior, she surprised me by disagreeing, at least in part. She felt that Steelers fans in particular had a tendency to feel that they "own" the players, with the attendant behaviors that the attitude conjures.
She also related a story told to her by a group of Steelers fans who attended a game in Baltimore, a place that Boss Chick is not too fond of for a variety of reasons and seeks to avoid. It seems that these fans, identifiable as Steelers fans by their apparel were sitting in the lower deck of the stadium and were urinated upon by people who were seated in the upper deck. She didn't take the route of the cheap shot by suggesting that this had anything to do with the general character of Ravens fans; instead she put the blame squarely on alcohol. Alcohol came up several times as a subtext to some of the more problematic aspects of the fan experience. The fact, for example, that some fans wouldn't come to watch the games at the Alley Cat because they wanted to drink in excess of what would be wise or acceptable in that venue. Consequently, they stayed home.
A point of pride for Boss Steeler Chick, and you might say a point that is somewhat self- evident given her own success, is the fact that the Steelers have the largest female fan base in the NFL. And the second place community, the Packers I believe, aren't even close. This prompted to me to mention the success the Steelers had in offering a camp experience for women, something Boss Chick had attended. This brought two things to mind for me. First, a conversation I had with a friend, who was not from Pittsburgh telling me that he was beginning to date a woman from the Burgh. I told him you better know your football or you might end up being kicked to the curb. The other association that kept running through my mind over the course of the conversation was with my BTSC colleague Rebecca Rollett; a lot of commonalities.
Boss Chick attends, from my perspective, a lot of games at Heinz Field and was shocked when I confessed that I had never attended a home game there. I was equally surprised to discover that she had never attended a game at Three Rivers Stadium. She made particular mention of the recent playoff games with the Jaguars, Ravens and Jets during Tomlin's tenure. She used the term "deafening" to describe the noise level. This was intriguing to me because I would use the same term to describe TRS, but I always wondered if the open end at Heinz Field suppressed the impact of noise. Apparently not. She also mentioned when Steeler Nation took over FedEx field when the Steelers played there during the '08 season that Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell had to resort to a silent count in his own stadium!
The DC SteelCity Mafia Fan Club collectively takes in one game a year at Heinz Field, and this year, appropriately enough, it will be the contest against the Redskins on the 28th of October. The day features a pre-game party Saturday night and tailgating both before and after the game on Sunday. Boss Chick is looking forward to RG III getting a somewhat traumatizing education in what football is all about. For a Steelers fan club based in Washington DC it is an enticing prospect to being a witness to the Skins having to endure an afternoon on our turf.
Upon departing I promised that I would come to the Alley Cat for at least one game this season. There is also the possibility that our paths may cross during training camp this summer. I support and completely endorse her goal of "bringing Steelers fans together." Social media, as great as it can be, nonetheless is not the same as having face to face human contact. And if you think the sole benefit to going to a Steelers bar is to just see the game you don't get it. (Interestingly enough, the Steelers' success has served to suppress this activity somewhat. Folks are less likely to come to the bars when the games are nationally televised and they can watch at home; and not at all for night games.) Even as Boss Steeler Chick and others are more successful, there are other issues as well. In DC Metro at least we aren't talking about just a handful of people. There are other fan organizations and several Steeler-themed venues in the area, but the possibility of growth and stronger networking is a huge opportunity waiting to be exploited.
That being said, Boss Steeler Chick, has accomplished a great deal through a combination of strong people, organizational and public relations skills. And, of course, a passion for the Steelers that seems almost a birthright of Pittsburgh natives. I would point to this year's event in Chantilly as testament to what's being achieved with the help of her leadership. (Just to review, those in attendance included Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Dermontti Dawson, Hines Ward, Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Clark and Mike Wallace. Antonio Brown was supposed to attend but had a transportation issue). Her reputation is well deserved, and she's anxious for others to join the party through her Facebook page under the title of Boss Steeler Chick and the DC SteelCity Mafia website.