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How Steelers fans cope with change and loss

The departure of James Harrison opened a painful wound for some, not so much for others. How do we explain the difference in reactions?

Jamie Squire

When I was a child two or three times a year we traveled to the home of my grandparents, located in a small town in Ohio named Xenia. To get there we had to pass through the nearby community of London, the home of Steeler defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, something I am reminded of every time I see Coach Dad. Because this was in the days prior to instant, easy and cheap long distance communications the first conversation the adults had after we arrived was a listing of what changes had occurred, usually about who had died. This all seemed pretty morbid to me, and considering myself clever I once cheerfully announced upon entering the house, "Well, who died this time?" I didn't understand.

Until Thursday evening news reports indicated that the two sides were talking and there was optimism that a deal could be worked that would allow the team to retain the services of James Harrison. However, as I write this both local and national media report that the sides have reached an impasse and that Harrison is likely to be released.

As I was writing the Checkdown on Friday I was on this Harrison death watch, checking the headlines at BTSC, and the Pittsburgh media with a growing sense of dread. Why am I so down? Its the nature of the business, right? Grow up. Nothing happens.

I finish the Checkdown knowing that what is likely to be the week's biggest story will not be included. And then I'm contacted by Hombre de Acero (The benefits of the Internet: we live on two different continents in two different hemispheres -its winter here, summer there, how weird is that-and we touch base pretty much daily). He directs me to a piece by Jim Wexell with the thought of including it in the Checkdown. I had already submitted the article, it was late but Hombre must have had a good reason to suggest it so I read the piece, linked here, and found myself in complete sync with Wexell, even down to his use of the term "Death Watch". I immediately edit the piece into the Checkdown and feel comforted that someone else feels my pain.

It becomes clear over the weekend that many in Steeler Nation are grieving over the end of the Harrison era, but others are clearly not and seemed puzzled and maybe even a bit annoyed by those that do. Consider this comment on the thread of a tribute by PaVaSteeler.


So if I don’t feel all misty about a player leaving my team I’m less than human? Give me a break. Nobody died – the man could have stayed – he’s already made millions playing for the Steelers and he could have stayed and made more – he chose not to.
I have great respect for what JH did for the Steelers – but to me he sometimes crossed the line between being tough and being dirty. Yes he made that great play in the Super Bowl and then he also punched Aaron Francisco silly. Yes he overcame great odds and being cut three times to become a defensive MVP – but he also was arrested for hitting a woman. And he had no problem trashing teammates in the media and saying he wouldn’t piss on Goddell if he was on fire. Not that I have any love for RG – but that was classless, IMO.
JH was a great warrior for us – no denying that – but when I think of players that exemplify Steeler football I think of guys like Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Jerome Bettis – guys who were great on and off the field.
Guys the the Chief would be proud of.

And this

us nonhumans have better things to get misty-eyed about

than the departure of a multi-millionaire athlete well into the twilight of his career. he was a great player for us, but would he even make the all-time Steelers defensive team?

he did start a charity for underprivileged kids, so that’s worth applauding.

So those of us who are 'misty-eyed' about Harrison have a problem with our priorities. Theatrain in support of pgiuliano1 suggests that there are "better things to get misty-eyed about", presumably world hunger and such. A challenging assertion to be sure, but I'm suspicious. However, I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I saw these comments I had another exchange with Hombre.

I was sharing with him how bummed I was feeling at the imminent release of Harrison (before it actually happened) and also some general frustration with how cold some seemed to be over these moves. Hombre pointed out that youth may have a role to play and related how when he was younger he applauded Terry Bradshaw getting hurt because he was old and the way needed to made to bring in some young talent. That's what took me back to my snarky "who died" comment years ago.

Youth, actual and psychological, provides a partial explanation for some differences in perspective. On the surface at least the youthful attitude toward change would seem to be the most healthy. Change is inevitable, embrace it, no worries, no regrets. What the young are, by and large, unable to understand, what I didn't understand in Xenia is the concept of loss that is linked to change. Those deaths that my grandparents spoke of represented relationships and memories that shaped their lives. Their absence created holes that could not be filled by anything else. That is the foundation of what we know as grief. But to me they meant nothing, and I lacked the empathy and the good sense to honor that. Instead I ridiculed their experience and patted myself on the back for my wit.

Hombre, age 10 at the time, didn't understand what Bradshaw meant to his parents and their generation. Just as important he probably didn't know at the time that some things, if not irreplaceable, are not easily compensated for. If you are a relatively young Steelers fan you could be forgiven if you think that Pro Bowl caliber outside linebackers grow on trees. In Hombre's Five Questions the first has to do with choosing among three who played for the Steelers over the past two decades with Harrison rather seamlessly replacing Joey Porter.

You might also feel that way about the position of center. With the exception of the Sean Mahan/Justin Harwig hiccup that position has been a pretty uninterrupted string of excellence; Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson, Jeff Hartings, Maurkice Pouncey, spanning nearly fifty years. But that is peculiar. But many don't think so. As Rebecca Rollett has pointed out for all the hype surrounding the acquistion of David DeCastro and others the most highly rated offensive linemen (besides Pouncey) this past year were Max Starks and Ramon Foster two guys some will be unmoved to see leave because, I guess, they're boring. Players can be replaced...eventually, perhaps. We had Franco Harris and then Jerome Bettis. It only took 13 years. I have to wonder if some of the bad feeling directed at Rashard Mendenhall is because he's not Jerome. Well, there may not be that many Jerome's coming down the pike. That's why its such a sad moment when they go.

Would Hombre have been so happy about Bradshaw at the time if he knew that it would be over two decades before a comparable talent appeared? Prior to Ben Roethlisberger we had what comedian Chris Rock would have called a bunch of substitute teachers; Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O'Donnell, Kordell Stewart, Tommy Maddox, Mike Tomzak, etc. This is not unusual, actually closer to the norm. This is what makes much of the current quarterback discussion in these parts incomprehensible and nonsensical to me. 'We need to groom a replacement for Ben'. What are you talking about? Ben is a franchise quarterback, a generational player. Yet you get the idea that some think you just pick a player out of the pile, coach him up for a couple of years and Voila! Believe me, if it were that simple every organization in the NFL would have a franchise quarterback. They'd have two. Or more. Instead you have organizations like Detroit who nearly 60 years later is still looking for the next Bobby Layne. So let me be the bearer of sad tidings; when Ben's gone that's it. It's possible you may not see another of his caliber wearing a Pittsburgh uniform in your natural life. A pessimistic view to be sure but not out of the realm of possibility.

Ignorance of the arc of history which is often the consequence of youth would certainly explain to an extent this attitude of disposability, but there is more. I wrote a piece a month ago about the purpose of football. In it I noted that there is a culture war being waged between those who view sports as a method of pursuing transcendence with the fan being an "admirer" of that process.

A fan is an "admirer". Yes, we want our teams to win as much as anyone, but there is an appreciation and admiration for the challenges faced and hopefully overcome by the performers individually and collectively. There is an element of empathy as we recognize symbolically how this drama in ways mirrors the dramas and challenges that we all face in our own lives. This is what great art accomplishes and at its highest levels, at least in theory sports approaches and equals high art.

With that in mind let's return to the comment thread related PaVaSteeler's piece and consider this statement by Homer J.

James Harrison will always have a special place in the hearts of Steeler Nation because he is – in many ways – one of us. Overlooked and underestimated, he was undrafted and cut several times. He paid his dues on the special teams, worked his ass off, and earned not only a starting job but every award and every nickel he ever made as a Steeler. He may have become a superstar and the DPOY, but he was as Blue Collar as the city in which he played.

But others don't see the relationship that way. From their perspective sports is just an entertainment enterprise whose only payoff is winning. They may call themselves fans, but in the final analysis they are, in fact, customers or consumers. Players are just employees that facilitate that consumption.

But in the culture of winning the fan is replaced with the client or customer. The performer is viewed as an employee and the effectiveness, and if possible the spectacle of the performance is all that counts. In such an environment a Mike Tomlin can be a hero one year and a fool who needs to be fired the next. The nature of the struggles and challenges faced are neither recognized or understood.

Which brings us back to the comments by pgiuliano1 and theatrain. What is intriguing is the juxtaposition of pgiuliano1's argument with Homer J's. Harrison's flaws which form the basis of pgiuliano1's dismissal are precisely the elements that energizes Homer's argument. It is Homer's point that Harrison is deserving of our admiration and respect because of what he was able to accomplish in spite of being flawed just like the rest of us. In other words, transcendence. The contrasting arguments are rooted in the concepts of utility and separation. He's no longer particularly useful so what's the fuss?

Notice in both comments the mention of "makes millions" and "multi-millionaire athlete". These statements serve to separate and disqualify (not a knock on the commenters, the sentiments and usage is so near universal that it is virtually invisible). As a culture we have so closely tied success and failure, happiness and unhappiness, worthiness and unworthiness to money that to many it is inconceivable that these conditions could exist independent of our economic circumstances. They have money therefore it is improper and foolish for them to experience anything but complete satisfaction and gratitude for their lives. How dare they. They certainly don't qualify for our empathy or sympathy. For example, there is a crisis growing among a certain segment of the population. But because the victims are white and affluent few suspect and if they knew they might not care anyway.

Ultimately, this comes down to a conflict between a construct grounded in adolescent thinking and one grounded in adult thinking. Again, this is not an assessment of the individuals involved. These are cultural constructs that we all must choose to adopt or reject. The win/lose, good/evil, black/white dichotomy mirrors the thought pattern of the adolescent. Celebrity culture is based in its entirety on this. Individuals are celebrated (celebrate = celebrity) for their 'greatness' and elevated. When this becomes unsustainable either through the inevitable revelation of preexisting flaws or pitfalls created by the culture of celebrity itself then the pendulum swings to the other extreme. Adult thinking is grounded in nuance, paradoxes, contradictions, the grey; which is the area where most of us live our lives. In the adult world, the world in which we really live winning and losing can be a much more ambiguous thing, even when it appears that there are clearly victors and vanquished. It is the desire for clarity that attracts many of us to sports in the first place.

From the adolescent perspective theatrain and pgiuliano1 are probably absolutely right. There are no dead bodies lying about. Because its all about money the multimillionaire athlete is an unqualified winner who would even be more of a winner if he weren't so greedy and foolish as to not recognize how much of a winner he already is. His foolishness only trumped by those of us who invest emotionally in them when there are other places more deserving of our sentiments. So lets find the next person to put on the pedestal and move on.

Now I enjoy the entertainment aspects of this as much as the next person. But that is not the core reason why I embrace the sport. And let me guarantee you that the moment it becomes just about entertainment, I will be gone because at that time there will be places more deserving of my sentiments. Let me make my status clear; I'm a fan, not a consumer. If I stop being a fan I will not graduate (or regress) to being a consumer. And as a fan my relationship with Harrison is more complex than simply his utility to winning and losing.

This past August I was in Latrobe Stadium, a high school stadium, and was fortunate to witness a salute given to four former Steelers; Willie Parker, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith and Marvel Smith. It was a nice gesture. But my guess is that most of you reading this, if you weren't, would have liked to have been there yourselves. Problem is the place was standing room only as it was. Yet I think it would have been more just if a higher percentage of those whom they touched with their struggles and efforts could have had the opportunity to return the favor if just with their presence and their voices. It fell a bit short in that regard, just as PaVaSteeler points out that it will probably fall short for Harrison as well.

Now if your knee jerk reaction is to think 'Well they made all that money', then my point has been made.