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Football, the Steelers and a Changing Moral Society

I was prompted to think and write about this and after Terry Bradshaw recently admitted publicly that he took doctor-prescribed steroids in the 1970s to assist in the healing process.  If you saw Bradshaw play, he got banged up quite a bit, much more than any quarterback playing today. 

It’s interesting to see how the microcosm of football fits into our changing society of moral intolerance.

I would never tell my daughter that men used to carry guns into church.  She wouldn’t understand the Wild West.  I do not want to tell her that Art Rooney Sr. once hit a woman on the streets of Pittsburgh.  The woman and her husband had just beaten up one of Rooney’s friends and while Rooney was going to flatten the husband (he was a world-class boxer), the lady kept waving her umbrella at him.  When she did not heed several warnings from Rooney he decked her and then pummeled the husband.  The cops came along and simply took the couple to the station after dropping Rooney’s friend off at the hospital. That was the end of it.

Imagine if such were to happen today?  The press coverage, the impending trial, the criminal and civil implications, all of which would saturate the public beyond imagination.  The reason I will not tell my daughter this story is that she is too young to understand that you cannot judge yesterday’s actions with today’s standards.

As the world keeps changing, it becomes less and less tolerant.  Back in the 30s and 40s, the Steelers and other teams traveled by train to their away games.  They played cards, got drunk and sometimes got into donnybrooks with their own teammates.  There were no assault charges and no photos taken.  It never made the newspapers.  In fact the beat writers, who were on the same train, were a part of the team fraternity.  They would never expose the sanctity of the fraternity.  Can you imagine today?

I remember the first Steelers’ game I ever attended.  It was at Pitt Stadium in November, 1968.  My uncle was Chief of Police in Bellevue, a Pittsburgh suburb.  We were going to be late for the game, but Uncle Bill told me not to worry.  He grabbed one of his patrolmen and put him and me into a squad car.  He turned on the siren and the lights and sped all the way to Pitt Stadium non-stop.  What a thrill that was for a 13-year old kid going to his very first Steelers game.  In the 60s that type of thing happened. 

In the 70s you could not walk into Three Rivers Stadium on a fall Sunday and not smell the aroma of marijuana all around.  I was actually convinced, and still am today, that the number of older teens and young adults who regularly lit up a joint in broad daylight far outnumbered those who “just said no.”  Marijuana was the “new alcohol.”  It was better than booze because it didn’t affect your liver and didn’t give you a hangover.  In essence, the 70s were a generation of guinea pigs.  Young people just didn’t know how many brain cells pot would kill because extensive studies were too young to conclude long-term.  And legally, as long as you weren’t selling it, you were in the clear.  Chances are if a cop saw you walking the streets with a joint he might ask you for a hit.

Steroids took on much the same stance in the 70s.  While the common man had no interest in steroids, high-level football players found them extremely beneficial.  Neither the NFL nor the U.S. Government had any prohibition against steroid usage.  Just like marijuana, individuals injecting steroids had little concrete evidence of what the long-term effects might be.  The drugs were too young to have widespread and meaningful longitudinal studies.  Players were smart enough, however, to know that they too were guinea pigs.  They had enough sense to know that artificially altering a human body was not the right thing to do, but as long as there were no rules against it and the guys lining up across from you were juicing, then it was a risk worth taking, and a common one at that.

The notion that the Steelers might not have won four Super Bowls in the 70s without steroids is poppycock.  The Steelers would have won just as many Super Bowls without any steroids as long as the rest of the league was equally as clean.  The fact that Steve Courson wrote a book that guys from other teams didn’t write simply places the Steelers under a parochial spotlight.

It is also interesting to see the game of football itself move toward zero tolerance in an effort to mirror society.  What Joe Turkey Jones did to Terry Bradshaw would result in an instant and lengthy suspension today.  What Jack Lambert did to Cliff Harris would surely be an ejection.  In the 1976 Super Bowl, it resulted in a “settle down fellas” warning. 

The technicalities of right and wrong haven’t changed much through the years (except for cases such as steroids, which are now illegal and were not a generation ago).  Intrinsically, it was just as wrong for Art Rooney to hit a woman in the Roaring Twenties as it would be for a young man to do so today. It was just as wrong for teammates to engage in fisticuffs over a gin game in the 1940s as it would be today. What has changed is society’s tolerance level, or lack thereof. 

This is due in part, to whatever extent you want to argue, to the massive influx in media coverage.  The advent of the internet, the explosion of cable and satellite television, and the powerful impact that national publications such as USA-Today have all feasted on the carcass of human frailty.  Step out of line and you will now pay dearly for any act of indiscretion. 

It is fair to assume that a young Art Rooney or a bunch of guys playing cards would be smart enough to not make those same decisions in the 21st century.  Surely they would be keenly aware of, and react according to, the legal and public relations consequences of the times.  Fewer young people today are indulging in street drugs and those who do are not blatantly walking into football stadiums with them.  A crime is only as great as its corresponding punishment.  My daughter is not old enough yet to comprehend that.

In many ways our society today is better than ever.   Airplanes and restaurants are not filled with smoke.  Sex is not as promiscuous in mainstream America as it was a generation ago.  Drugs are the exception instead of the rule.  Bras aren’t being burned on some street corner protest and barroom brawls actually result in liable consequences.  In football, steroids and street drugs are in check with testing and excessive violence is curbed by fines and suspensions.  These are all good things.

On the flip side, it saddens me to see America lose some of its charm. Nontraditional innocence such as a kid racing to a ballgame in a squad car has long since passed us by.  You hear stories of kids getting cut from teams who turn around and sue the coach for pain and suffering and future lost wages.  That makes me sick.  Our world is becoming so litigious we need to think twice before pranks and practical jokes that were once common.

I will not tell my daughter about the goings on in fraternities back in my college days.  She will listen with today’s ear to the stories of yesterday, and that is not fair.  Someday she will be mature enough, as we keep heading down the path of intolerance and social perfection, to understand that we should never judge yesterday’s crime with today’s jury.