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Haters and Hating in Today's NFL

As we were waiting for this past Sunday’s game to begin, Sarah is telling me that she sat Rashard Mendenhall on her fantasy team. I respond that I believed that he would have a pretty good day. As we continued to discuss what we thought would transpire during the afternoon I also mentioned that I thought the Eagles would defeat the Redskins as well. Obviously, she viewed the first half of the Pittsburgh game with slightly mixed emotions as Mendenhall quickly scored a touchdown and amassed scores of yards in the first half alone. And as the Steelers were, if only temporarily, handling the Jaguars with ease, the Eagles were exercising a similar mastery over Washington.

What I found strange was that my sentiments seemed to run counter to what was mainstream thought.  Mendenhall is one of the elite backs in the league and Philly is one of the better teams in spite of its record so far. To be sure both have struggled early this season. But in Mendenhall’s case injury and instability of the offensive line had much to do with his early performance. And then I had a mild epiphany. This was not just about perceived ability or performance, this was about hate.

I’ve been meditating about hate since the season began. Many of us experienced it first hand in the wake of the loss to the Ravens. As I wrote at the time, the snarky comments and the fact that folks were going out of their way to needle me caught me off guard given the fact that I, at least in my own opinion, had not sunk to the level of being that kind of obnoxious fan who attracts and earns such treatment (but who knows). But it wasn’t just me. A lot of Steelers fans that I talked to reported having similar experiences.  Now hate, like anger, is a natural consequence to being human, so I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if the people pulling my chain were Ravens, Browns or Bengals fans. It is simply understood as part of the natural order of things that if they could those folks would slaughter the team, the Rooneys and all of Steeler Nation in our sleep and then declare a national holiday and party for weeks. In that sense let me be very clear that what follows has nothing to do with Mechem. Like what the late Richard Pryor, who could elevate the N word to an expression of high art, Mechem seems hell bent upon raising hate to near respectability.

No. The kind of hate that I am referring to is more informal, perhaps even unconscious; it’s subtle and insidious. I believe this hate is a consequence of the anger and contempt that has become such a depressingly normal and poisonous aspect of our cultural lives these days. This is just one man’s opinion obviously, and I suspect I’ll attract a little bit of hate bringing some of this up. Let the chips fall.

Jealousy? At least part of the hatred aimed at the Steelers is a direct consequence of the team’s success. In a sense we have become to professional football (along with the Cowboys and more recently, the Patriots) what the Yankees are to baseball, the Lakers to basketball, Duke to college basketball and so forth. Resenting another’s success is not the most honorable posture; and besides, openly rooting against a team that wins most of the time only makes things worse, exposing the hater’s impotence and inviting ridicule from the very ones that are despised. So they lurk, a cowardly move if there ever was one, waiting for that moment when the arrow penetrates Achilles’ heel, or the stone strikes Goliath’s forehead. At that moment (and only at that moment) they will burst forth from the woodwork like vermin and spit on the body.

But that is usually not the whole story. Inevitably, one unavoidable consequence of long term success is some of the fans simply won’t handle their good fortune very well. Some will become spoiled, a few down right boorish. Steeler Nation used to be pretty well inoculated against this kind of thing. Humility is something of a natural component of the Pittsburgh culture, but there are many now in the Nation whose connection to the Burgh is tenuous at best. People like me with, ahem, longer memories, can remember a time when putting out a respectable effort, winning any way they could or having a .500 record or better would be cause for celebration. Today there are twenty-something’s whose experience of a bad year is missing the playoffs. There can be a serious loss of perspective, a sense of entitlement which will eventually leach away the appreciation of the process and enjoyment of the game. It will also invite the contempt of others.

But there is more. And this is where the Eagles come in. Granted, Philadelphia really started the year off on the wrong foot. The team had a lot of problems, but despite those difficulties things didn’t strike me as being as bad as the media and fans around the country were spinning it. The piling on was reminiscent of the type of treatment the Steelers receive when they stumble. So, what do the Steelers and the Eagles have in common beyond residing on opposite sides of the same state? They are both led by quarterbacks who many people openly want to see fail, as well, as many more in lurking mode who secretly root for them to fail as well. This second group probably includes more than a few people in the league and media establishment who are concerned about Ben’s and Michael Vick’s image problems. Don’t believe for a minute their detractors have forgotten, forgiven or put the whole thing behind them. Each offender has paid the mandated punishment for their transgressions and we are supposed to honor that fact and move on. Many don’t share that view in their hearts. Truth be told they will not be satisfied unless and until each suffers total and permanent ruin. They are not likely to see that right away, so for the time being they will content themselves with celebrating the failure of their respective teams. The reason they keep these sentiments somewhat under wraps is the conscious or unconscious realization that their desire and delight in a greater, righteous vengeance may be just as ugly and twisted as the alleged and actual crimes of Big Ben and Vick.

Love/Hate Relationship. The current situation with Mendenhall is interesting and instructive insofar as it demonstrates that ideas and sentiments are contagious and can quickly go viral. Dissatisfaction is growing in some quarters with Rashard. There are many potential reasons; his slow start this year, his fumble in the Super Bowl as well as his history of being loose with the ball, his Tweets, his lapses into too much dancing around the hole, his stints in Tomlin’s doghouse, the fact that Redman is playing well and not getting nearly enough playing time and who knows what else. I continue to be amazed at how quickly players can fall out of favor. It really doesn’t take much for one to be labeled a bum and a liability. For example, Aaron Smith is presently getting the Charlie Batch treatment; frustrated by a string of injuries and the impact on his performance Smith is being eased to the door by fans who are convinced that he is finished. Valid? In Charlie’s case it was a bit hasty. Similarly, many are pissed off because the team invested so much into Willie Colon who had the temerity to get hurt again (fragile bastard!). There are grumblings about Timmons underperforming. Never mind he is playing out of position. They were on Woodley’s back until a couple of good performances shut them up. Peter King of Sports Illustrated declared Troy to be washed up until events contradicted his analysis. What has James Harrison done for anyone lately? Pouncey’s getting hurt a lot, isn’t he? The William Gay death watch is in remission. The rest of the offensive line lives on death row. Arians?  Please.

Thank God Steelers management is a bit more patient. Otherwise we might be striving for our second Lombardi, maybe the first. The kind of hate illustrated here is scapegoating; the idea that if things don’t go as well as we want or need then someone should and must pay. Three things exacerbate scapegoating; ego overinvestment, the fantasy football culture and our love/hate relationships with celebrities in general and the professional athletic community in particular

Anger and frustration is part of the package of being a fan (as is joy). But the commitment can, and often does, go too far. To be sure, when the team fails empathy demands we suffer as well. But when that suffering lingers on even after the team, you know the group that actually suffered the setback, ass whipping, whatever, has moved on and you’re still stewing in grief and pointing fingers then maybe it’s time to reevaluate priorities.

I’m beginning to hate the Fantasy culture because it subtly is contaminating how we think about the actual game itself. Fantasy overemphasizes scorers (wide receivers, running backs, quarterbacks, place kickers), underemphasizes defense and ignores offensive linemen. It disregards teamwork and group cohesion. It celebrates disposability (therefore the idea that the solution of problems involves sitting or cutting someone and procuring a replacement). It’s the grass is always greener on steroids. There’s always something better "out there" somewhere. This ethic caused fantasy players to lose out on two consecutive weeks. First, many people sat Ben because he was hurt and the team, particularly the offense was playing poorly. Ben throws for five touchdowns and is AFC Player of the Week. Mendenhall sat based upon similar wisdom and guess what? At its root all fantasy is gambling with the values and pathology that comes along for the ride. Much of the anger directed at the game is not that of disappointed fans but of frustrated gamblers. Their loyalty is to their money or whatever the winning prize in question is.

Finally there is the complex and complicated relationship we have with the athletes, coaches and others associated with the game. An in depth discussion would be a whole article in itself. Suffice to say that we can flip from worshipful admiration to withering contempt at the slightest provocation. Nor is this state of affairs simply the result of factors solely involving us fans. Some of the qualities that make for highly successful athletes; obsessive compulsive behavior, self-absorption, narcissism, aggression, an inflated sense of entitlement would all be deemed highly negative qualities in many ‘normal’ settings. Not to mention the pressures that come with the territory that many athletes are totally unprepared to manage. Add to that the simmering resentments from fans and the media of people who rise to the top of the economic and social food chain based upon a skill set of questionable value while those involved in more ‘serious’ pursuits lie exposed to the cruel uncertainties of the world; circumstances that often serve to drive us head long into the bosom of sports for escape.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that there is a lot of hate flying around out there. It might even be healthy if we were more transparent about the whole business, at least with ourselves. It is the lurking and ambushing that I think is the most corrosive element of this.  One final illustration should make the point.

Head coaches are rarely loved by everyone. I remember that in the midst of their run for four championships during the 70s there were fans calling for Chuck Noll’s head. So no one should be surprised that Tomlin has had his share of detractors, particularly given the circumstances surrounding his hiring. More visible as he struggled through his first year, they went seriously underground when the Steelers won the Championship in ’08. But every so often, such as after the disaster in Baltimore, the lurkers come out. Sometimes the knock is subtle. One person suggested that the jury was still out on Tomlin. This is after four years, three division titles in four years and two Super Bowl appearances before the man’s 40th birthday. And yes, he doesn’t have a slot in the HOF nailed down yet. Of course, refreshingly, sometimes a person will be more explicit. After Baltimore, someone put it this way; "I never did like Tomlin."