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The Devolution of a Great American Game

For those of you whose heads have nearly exploded over current events involving Harrison, Ben and others, the following might carry you over the top. I also must warn you that we may also delve into the dangerous topics of politics, religion, economics, human psychology and, possibly sex and race. I apologize in advance, and if that doesn’t work I’ll blame Mechem.

On the website Steeler Depot, Dave Bryan published a piece pointing out that the NFL was selling photos of Colt McCoy in the immediate aftermath of the hit that he suffered from Harrison, and of Ben at just the moment that Scott Paxson’s body threatened to snap his ankle like a twig. Now, if you’re having trouble following this let me rephrase; while James Harrison sits home with the rest of us on Monday night because he has been judged to have committed crimes against humanity so foul that he must be removed from the field and forfeit his salary for the week, the NFL attempted to profit from his actions. I say "attempted", because, Bryan pointed out at the end of his piece, once busted removed the photos; an admission of guilt I would say. Nor is this the first time that we’ve been down this particular road. Last year, Harrison was fined for a hit he put on Cleveland receiver Mohammed Massaquoi (Why do these incidents always involve Cleveland?) judged to be beyond the pale. The NFL sold photos of that hit as well; so this constitutes a repeat offense. However, so far no word about fines or suspensions of the parties involved. There is a popular term that captures the essence of this situation:

C’mon man!

Look, before moving forward let me say that I get the safety concerns. In fact, I think I get the safety concerns better than a lot of people do. I know that fining and suspending Harrison and the others isn’t going to do jack about the very real safety concerns that the NFL needs to address. But it’s good PR. The crazy, inconsistent dynamics involved in this process begins to make a least a bit of sense when you realize that this isn’t really about safety at all. It’s about money.

Let’s be honest, professional football is a tough, difficult, very physically demanding exercise. Arguably, maybe it is too violent a game for a civilized and moral society to tolerate; and believe me, that debate is just around the corner. And because of the size and the speed of the athletes involved, the game may be more dangerous now than it has ever been. We have managed to keep the human wreckage that the game produces more or less on the down low, as the saying goes, but the truth is catching up. The death of players like Mike Webster, Andre Waters and John Mackey tell a very disturbing tale and the physical and mental disabilities of numerous former players, still living is something, like the proverbial sausage factory you don’t want to look at too closely. This involves not only the demands on the field of play, but also the drug and other abuses that players wrestle with to make it on, or to stay on that field of play. All of this makes for a very difficult conversation. It’s a particular difficult conversation because at the core it is moral. And in spite of love for moralistic posturing, morality is not one of our strengths as a nation right now.

An acquaintance, a Roman Catholic who is from India told me the following story about Mahatma Gandhi. Though a practicing Hindu, Gandhi was well acquainted with Christianity and the Bible. He was asked once if he had ever considered becoming a Christian. Gandhi’s response was that he had never met one. A wise guy type of remark to be sure, but it speaks to a brutal truth as well. There really aren’t very many moral people out there, and especially in positions of power. So the response by the league to the complex and difficult issue of how they begin to wean themselves away from some of the more toxic practices that endanger the well-being of their players is to scapegoat James Harrison and his ilk; a move that is on its face is ridiculous, but appears bold and groundbreaking to people who aren’t accustomed to thinking too deeply about things. Most importantly, the money just keeps on coming in. The television contracts have just been renewed and as the item that began this piece demonstrates and just paying casual attention to the sports shows will reveal, beating up Harrison has become a revenue stream in and of itself.

I would love to simply conclude that this is part of some vast conspiracy to screw Steeler Nation. I do believe that if the league continues down its current path, both in terms of the safety issue and its practices in general that the Steelers, their players and fans will suffer disproportionately. The forces aligned opposite are not so much evil, I prefer the term wicked, as in twisted. The values that drive them are very different from that of the Rooneys even though they are in the same business and, on the surface, are pursuing similar goals. Money, particularly large amounts of money changes everything. Think of turning on a light outside on a summer’s night and the kind of creatures it attracts. They will come, they must come, it is the nature of things. I’m talking about players, management, owners, the media, sponsors and, in some cases, even fans. They have no particular love for the game beyond what the game can do to advance their own narcissistic ambitions. To these ends they will milk the game, if necessary bleed it, and finally slaughter it to achieve what they desire. Organizations like the Steelers, the Giants, the Packers, perhaps a few others nurtured and built this game when the rewards for doing so weren’t nearly so attractive, or should I say seductive. Their relationship and perspective is rather different. And it explains to an extent why all three of the franchises mentioned are experiencing great success relative to the others.

Have you ever really thought about why the respect for the Rooneys is so great?

Earlier this year I had the honor and privilege to sit down and speak with long time Steeler personnel man and scout Bill Nunn. During the course of the conversation he said two things about Dan Rooney that was obvious and stunning. 1) He was one of the few billionaires in Pittsburgh, and 2) he still lived in the house on the North Side in which he grew up. What gave the statement greater impact is that we were sitting on back porch of the house that Nunn had grown up in, which was located in Pittsburgh’s Hill District; Nunn being one of the longest tenured managers in this multi-billion dollar institution that is the NFL. Different values. The Rooney family is that great rarity, moral men and women whose morality is reflected in how they conduct their business, especially how they treat their employees and customers (more or less strict adherence to the Golden Rule within the necessary parameters of operating a successful business), and the greatest telltale sign of moral leadership; humility. It is a testimony to the level of cultural bankruptcy that we are enduring that when we are exposed to this uncommon phenomenon we are overjoyed and amazed. It also puts the lie to the notion that right action must be sacrificed in order to achieve success. This is the propaganda of the con artists, scoundrels and crooks that have slithered their way to the top. To the contrary, the Steelers organization demonstrates consistently that right action is actually essential to long term success.

This is why the Steelers model for success is not easily replicated. Potential imitators are unfamiliar with the methods and the values behind them, and in any case have no confidence in them. They don’t understand the concept of sharing their practice facility with the local university Division I football team (and letting them use their stadium for its home games). They don’t understand why they would weather the inconvenience, criticism and additional expense of making their game field available to local high school teams for playoff games. They don’t understand that by trying to keep ticket prices affordable to the average fan, by treating their head coaches more like tenured professors than hired hands, by taking the cafeteria servers to Super Bowls, by paying for the hospital bills, college tuition and business startups of former players, and, most important of all, by knowing and staying faithful to their business (football) that the Steelers organization enjoys a level of success that is unprecedented in any business.

So what do you do if you can’t beat them or join them? You legislate against them. You change the game to something that is unfamiliar to real football people. In doing so you cannot help but to expose your core values which are warped, distorted and not a little crazy. They would be naturally offensive to Steeler Nation who immediately understands that they also run counter to our interests. You’ve heard the term culture war to describe goings on in the larger culture, but this is, in fact, what is going on here, low level of course. And if you want to know where we end up if we continue to follow their lead, all you need to do is see what happened to Pittsburgh and most of the upper Midwest in the last 30 years; the ‘why’ of the Diaspora. The Steelers have come to represent the best values of our community properly understood and applied. They have been and continue to be under attack by the corrosive effects of greed and the wrong- headed thinking that it spawns. The need that they are trying to satisfy cannot be sated. No amount of money can fulfill the need to be loved by self and by others. So what will happen is that the corporate concerns, the moral pigmies and those fans simply seeking casual entertainment will squeeze everything out of the NFL until there is nothing left. Then they will discard the broken carcass and move on to the next entertainment.

A word about Harrison.

The popular criticism is to insist that James change his ways and to disparage the fact that he isn’t taking this matter ‘seriously’. But what if he can’t, by that I mean what if doing so strips him of precisely those qualities that make him a great player? Another part of that conversation I had with Nunn, who if you remember made his money evaluating talent, is that he expressed some concern about the over coaching of individuals whose gifts were best expressed by not thinking. The term most commonly used is ‘instinctual’ which I think is a primitive and crude explanation for what we now know as kinesthetic intelligence. The principle is that the body has its own methods of learning that are not connected to verbal, intellectual methods. Think about how you learned to walk. Or even better, learning to ride a bicycle. Now, if you were trying to teach a friend how to ride a bike would you sit them down in a classroom and lecture them on balance and rhythm or would you take them out, put them on a bike, and have their bodies learn by trial and error?

We are now asking players like Harrison (and Troy, and others) to either slow themselves down by thinking (verbalizing) and mute their gifts, or undergo a retraining regimen to, hopefully, successfully reeducate their bodies, both of these paths are pretty problematic. In addition, we are operating under the false premise that who is predator and who is prey is a static value. The question when confronted by athletes such as Ben, Michael Vick, Cam Newton and Tim Tebow is not always how do you bring them down, but whether you can bring them down at all.

This opens up the moral question of the selective application of protections involving head to head contact. How can head to head contact be a grave safety matter in the case of some players, but of no matter at all to others? How can you, for example, exclude running backs that arguably have the shortest shelf life of any category of player in the league due to the tremendous level of physical abuse inherent to the position? Are we now saying that we have a class of elites and another class of cannon fodder and drones? Remember, Harrison missed a number of games this year due to the results of head to head contact not initiated by him. No penalties, fines or suspensions involved.

Bottom line, this process has not been thought through, nor structured in such a way that players, coaches and fans can feel confident that the process is being legislated in an even handed manner. In the meantime the process will skew against the Steelers because they insist on actually playing football rather than rough touch.

Is there a solution? In my view the safety piece is one of several trends that are destroying the game. My solution would be to make Dan Rooney NFL commissioner. Now wouldn’t that be a vast improvement?