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Drawing the line between topics of discussion and points to avoid on a news site

Should the socio-cultural context that subtly and sometimes not so subtly influence the game we follow be purged from our stories and discussions about the Steelers?

Kent Nishimura

There has been a bit of a firestorm on this site over the behavior of Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey. I'm not so interested in how people view the appropriateness of his actions, that will be sorted out in time. The aspect that I believe is worthy of some reflection is the question of whether it is appropriate to address the issue at all on a site like BTSC.

It is not the first time the theme has been broached, the question has been raised more than once in relation to stories I have written, and I am confident it will not be the last. Let me emphasize at the outset that though I write for the site this is simply my opinion and not a statement on editorial policy. That would fall to Neal.

I certainly understand why some readers would be a bit miffed when discussion veers 'outside the lines' to involve things not directly related to Xs and Os, personnel moves, limited financial considerations and the prospects for the season and beyond. The appeal and charm of sports for many of us is that it takes us away from messy, complex and frankly, depressing features of the 'real world'. The last thing that some of us want is escape to what we believe to be a more uplifting venue only to find that the things that we are escaping from have followed us and infiltrated Eden.

There is also the very legitimate concern about the slippery slope. One of the truly great things about sports and Steeler Nation in particular is how the common cause of our support for a football team cuts across and obliterates chasms such as race, class, politics and so many of things that separates us and puts us at each other's throats in the wider world. I am always gratified that the display of Steelers paraphernalia provides license to approach anyone at any time and receive a welcoming response. The danger that certain columns can re-introduce and nurture divisive, negative interaction and attract the wrong element is something for which we must continue to practice unceasing vigilance. The policies in place against expressions of racism, sexism and other forms of disrespect are not in place merely for show. If you don't believe that the barbarians are at the gates you are sadly mistaken.

However, can you really have level headed, intelligent and in depth discussion about the game without some awareness of cultural currents, social and economic realities that influence and shape what occurs within the lines? As others have pointed out, anything that has an impact on what happens inside the lines is a legitimate news items, and at the end of the day this is a news site. Does this mean that we'll all be happy and accepting of all of the subjects addressed by this site? In a word, no. Let me give a personal example.

I've made no secret of the fact that I hate Fantasy Football. What I have come to hate the most about it is its corrupting influence on how many younger fans in particular have come to view the game; how it diminishes the value of players such as offensive linemen who don't handle the ball, distorts relative value of offense and defense as well as the value of team vs individual effort and all aspects that are not easily reduced to measurable items. But if you view the matter from just the perspective of being a purist you miss the point that drives Fantasy and guarantees its not going anywhere anytime soon; the relationship between the game and gambling. Gambling is a huge economic force that influences the game driving point spreads and policies concerning injury reports, performance enhancement issues and yes, Fantasy. A huge part of fan interest in the game is not motivated by loyalty to a particular team or even to the game itself, but in its money making potential through wagers. At the end of the day what are fantasy leagues and NCAA tournament pools but gambling vehicles? The danger of corruption driven by the possibility of point shaving and related issues is a constant if not consistently highlighted concern not only for football but all sports. There is plenty of history to back those concerns. And it influences even relatively innocuous discussions among fans. What drives the thinking that a Mike Wallace or an Emmanuel Sanders are more valuable chess pieces than a Steve McLendon? So what should be the position on Fantasy? Like it or not it's impact is real and significant. It's news and it doesn't really matter whether I like it or not. There needs to be a greater justification than that to not address it. Now, how we address it is another matter entirely.

Let's take one of the most radioactive topics there is in our culture; race and ethnicity. Out of bounds? In many respects, absolutely. But consider Mike Tomlin. I suspect regardless of how you discern his handling of the team that only a small minority would believe (or publicly admit to believing) that Tomlin is not a competent head coach. Yet there would have been virtually no chance of his being hired 30 years ago or earlier. Given his profile when he was hired, young and relatively inexperienced, he likely would have had difficulty being hired as recently as 20 or even 15 years ago in the NFL. And let's not stop with blacks. Vince Lombardi, the iconic and legendary head coach of the Green Bay Packers, the man for whom the Super Bowl trophy was named, began his head coaching career relatively late in life because, it is believed, of the prejudice that existed against folks whose last name ended in a vowel (code for Italians). The Rooneys faced impediments because of being Irish and Catholic.

Who has been able to participate in the game and in what capacity has been closely tied to the cultural realities of the larger society. In fact, one of the nobler and uplifting aspects of sports is the extent that it has played a lead role in social progress. Branch Rickey (Brooklyn Dodgers), Paul Brown (Cleveland Browns) and Art Rooney Sr were all way ahead of the curve in facilitating inclusion which (probably not a coincidence) led to eras of competitive prosperity for their respective franchises. The best sports journalism over the years were exercises in social commentary as much as sports commentary.

How about class? A former Steeler once remarked that you are unlikely to find boxing gyms in your more affluent neighborhoods. It was his way of making the point that because of the risk factors involved in certain sports that who participates may be influenced by the range of life options available to them in their respective communities. In this sense should we be surprised of the disproportionate influence and success of the game in the Southeast region, traditionally the poorest in the country? Connect the dots. The values, practices and pathologies of their communities informs the behavior of the players (whether as factors to be embraced or avoided does not matter); the role and handling of money, relationships and loyalty, gang culture. Occasionally you end up with a Aaron Hernandez. And how is he relevant to the discussion of football? Because no one's predicting the Patriots being in the Super Bowl this year. I guess you can ignore the elephant in the room but what's level headed about that?

While still connecting dots I invite you to consider how head injuries, the legal landscape, non-guaranteed contracts, the global economy, 24/7 sports media, celebrity culture, influence of the colleges or lack thereof (Hernandez, the Pouncey brothers and Chris Rainey all were Florida Gators) and social media affects the game as well. If you haven't noticed changing developments in relation to gay rights are beginning to be felt in the sports culture as well, to an effect that is unknown and unknowable at this time, but it will most likely be newsworthy. Players, teams and other league officials and, yes, the fans as well will have to navigate this landscape one way or another.

How do we all decide to cope with those things that annoy us or make us uncomfortable? I don't have much use for stories with Fantasy themes (or mock drafts either). But I am also aware that Steeler Nation is just that, a nation, with all the diversity that such a designation implies. Many love fantasy (and mock drafts too, God help them). It would be a mistake on all kinds of levels if BTSC chose to ignore or dismiss that segment of its market. Sticking our heads in the sand while tempting, comfortable, apparently safe, but is never a wise decision.

Appropriateness is often a function not of what subjects are addressed but how they are handled. I think the strength of this community is its stubborn persistence and fidelity to taking the high road in terms of our treatment of the various topics that emerge relating to professional football in general and the Steelers in particular. In this sense I believe we aspire to the standards of the organization that we follow and admire.