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Steelers consumers vs. Steelers fans: two different worldviews

The assumptions that drive the expectations and passions of some in Steelers Nation may be radically different from that of others.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Lately, when reading articles or comments on this or other Steelers related sites some version of this statement has become something of an obligatory disclaimer; "While I don't fall into the 'Fire Tomlin' or 'Fire Colbert' camp...", and then they go on to attempt to make a critical assessment of the state of team that they feel seems reasonable. But for a few moments I've zoned out. Who are the members of the 'camp' that believes that Tomlin or Colbert (or for that matter Haley or anybody else) should be fired?

They're idiots!

I know this isn't the politic thing to say, its just an honest reporting of what my initial reaction is upon being exposed to this perspective. It comes out like projectile vomit, always with the exclamation point. And then, unless I'm in a really bad mood I become more circumspect.

They're probably not idiots, but they certainly see the world differently than I do. A while back I wrote that the football watching public could be divided into two broadly defined groups; consumers and fans, and that these two groups have very different orientations and expectations as it relates to the game although on the surface these distinctions may not be easy to discern.

For the sake of brevity the most simple way to put it is that a consumer has a contractual relationship with a team while a fan has a covenant relationship. In a contractual situation the results are the thing. The relationship is entered into in order to secure certain goals. In this particular instance some of those goals might be entertainment, prestige and money (some of us are too diplomatic or perhaps too naive to speak of it, but I am certain that some of the rage that some fans feel over a loss is related to surrendering some cash, i.e. gambling). Winning teams tend to fulfill these goals as well as serving as a counterfeit for self esteem and a number of other factors.

With a covenant the relationship itself is the thing. Entertainment, prestige, pride, money and championships are highly valued but to a certain extent are besides the point. You might be disappointed that your child sucked at sports but you wouldn't contemplate putting him/her up for adoption, at least I hope you wouldn't, as a consequence. Simply put, from a contractual perspective relationships are a means to an end, with covenants the relationship is the end.

What does this mean in more specific terms? A consumer is more likely to view a team and its players as employees or contractors who are providing a service. They believe that the Pittsburgh Steelers OWE them something. And when they don't deliver in a timely (by your estimation) manner, well then you fire them. The contract has been violated. This isn't what you signed up for. You are not being entertained, people are making fun of Steelers fans, your pride is hurt and you blew this month's car payment because you thought that beating the Titans was a slam dunk.

Fans are thinking more in terms of a partnership. As such though they will get angry and frustrated, and will at some point advocate for personnel changes, the bar is much, much higher. Players, for example, are more likely to be viewed in more complete terms than their utility to winning games. Otherwise, who cares that LC Greenwood passed away last week? A consumer could care less, unless some aspect of his passing, say an induction into the Hall of Fame, would serve to enhance the prestige of being associated with the Steelers. Consumption can be self absorbing and narcissistic. Fans identify with an organization on a different level than consumers.

It could be argued that one reason that the institution of marriage isn't what we would hope it would be is because it has become more contractual in concept and practice, although it was conceived and is still revealed in the nature of its vows to be a covenant. Successful organizations like the Steelers are more likely to have a higher number of consumers in their fan base. I can't imagine the Chicago Cubs having that many. Fantasy football is the consumer construct on steroids.

It is also worth noting that the league is certainly skewing toward catering more to consumers than to fans; probably assuming, smartly and accurately it turns out, that fans by their very nature will tolerate a great deal of abuse before they break faith with their team or the game. To fully understand what this means, the Steelers of the 70s, highlighted in Neal Coolong's fine book review could not possibly exist today. Everything from the rules governing team building and development, to compensation, to the rules of the game itself would conspire against them. Not that today's consumers would even appreciate what they were seeing developing before their eyes.

Would a consumer give Chuck Noll four years to develop a playoff caliber team? Or would they give Terry Bradshaw five years to develop into an elite quarterback? The tide turned in the 1972 AFCCG when the Miami punter took advantage of the fact that the Steelers punt unit turned their backs on him and allowed him to run unmolested for a first down. Was this proof that Noll couldn't coach and needed to be replaced? Shouldn't Noll have anticipated the possibility that he might lose both of his 1,000 yard running backs in the 1976 AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Colts and had more adequate alternatives available for the championship game the following week? Shouldn't the team have immediately cut ties with Ernie Holmes after the incident on the Ohio Turnpike?

So viewed from the consumer perspective the calls for the firings of one of the most successful head coaches and one of the most successful team executives does not make one an idiot. But don't ask me to endorse the value system that drives that sort of thinking. It will kill this game.

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