My worst sports take of 2018—and believe me, my catalog of harebrained sports narratives is considerable and vast—was that the NFL should be more like the NBA. There are a number of reasons for this—the NBA celebrates individuality, whereas the NFL ecosystem oftentimes seems to work its damnedest to actively suppress its players’ voices; basketball contracts are fully guaranteed, whereas football ones are not; the NBA has a more engaging, watchable product (although this part turned out to be false, because the 2018 NFL regular season, thanks to a league-wide scoring boom, was among the most exciting of my lifetime)—but my foremost line of thinking at the time was that, in the NBA, the interesting and compelling things that happen away from the playing surface are infinitely less depressing than the ones that emerge from the NFL. Right now, off the top of your head, name, like, the three most prominent off-field NFL storylines from the past season. I can only list two: Colin Kaepernick and the “anthem controversy”, and the ongoing and never-ending scourge of violence against women (including an investigation into alleged sexual harassment and workplace misconduct by former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson that didn’t command nearly enough national attention).
Of course, reducing the number of abusers and harassers in NFL locker rooms and front offices is a paramount concern, as is pioneering a failsafe method for enabling players to use their platforms to participate—or not participate—in political discourse, but these are both heavy, formidable directives and keeping a keen eye on them is exhausting; also, they’re beyond your control. (If you’re anything like me, though, you’ve already accepted the innate hypocrisy of fanhood, resigning yourself to separating the individual whose worldview may not mirror your own and whose shady past you do not agree with from the team you wholeheartedly support—like, I think Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the greatest album of all time, but I think Kanye West is a contemptible human being, for I contain multitudes, I guess.) Thus, I am envious of the NBA’s many fluffier, less distressing storylines. [So and so] has demanded a trade! How will [player’s] looming free agent decision impact the balance of power in the NBA? [Some guy] plans to opt out and team up with [some other guy] next season! [Player] told the media that [player] is a b-word!
Thankfully, my favorite NFL team had developed a penchant for delivering buzzworthy human-interest stories, ultimately to the point that the Steelers are now an overflowing font of chaos and absurdity. Antonio Brown live-streaming Mike Tomlin’s fiery locker room speech in the run-up to the 2017 AFC Championship, Martavis Bryant dragging teammates and getting traded, and Le’Veon Bell ghosting the Steelers in favor of post rap videos were all hilarious at the time and in retrospect, but Bell’s inevitable forthcoming departure and Brown’s potential exodus—and I realize I’m probably very late to the party on this—has me longing for the Steelers to remain absent from the national news cycle. Like, it’s hilarious when Jimmy Butler verbally demands a trade, bides his time, and shows up unannounced to practice to drag his nuts all over the very same teammates he’s hoping to escape before going on national television to reiterate his desire for a fresh start, but that’s because A) I don’t particularly care about the long-term vitality of Jimmy Butler or the Minnesota Timberwolves and B) drama amuses me. But when it’s my favorite player allegedly blowing up at practice, possibly asking for a trade, and flirting with other teams on Instagram, well, it’s a lot less funny (see above: the hypocrisy of fanhood).
The wildest part about the whole Antonio Brown situation is that it’s really effectively clouded the fact that the Steelers abruptly plunged headfirst into the murky depths of mediocrity at season’s end. I don’t wanna imply that counting Pro Bowlers is a useful quantitative measure for determining a team’s preeminence, but the Steelers are loaded, not only with star veterans, but also blue-chippers. They should be miles better than their pedestrian-looking 9-6-1 record in 2018 reflected, and there is little doubt that this team, in its current state, could realistically compete for a Super Bowl in 2019. (Alternatively, it’s possible that we’ve already seen the very best of that this current iteration of the Steelers has to offer, and thus 2018 was not an outlier, but a harbinger of things to come. Perhaps the nadir is on the horizon.)
I’ve said before that, despite all that’s happened between Brown and the Steelers since the regular season ended, I hope he’s on the team in 2019 and beyond. He’s still an incredibly gifted and productive receiver, which means he makes the Steelers a better, more exciting team. I’d love for Brown and whatever members of the organization currently represent his belligerents to squash their beef sometime before the March 7th trade window, and I’d be even happier if both sides could maintain a relatively drama-free relationship for the remainder of Brown’s Steelers tenure. If parting ways with Brown enables the team to live in relative anonymity but still compete, I guess that’s fine, too.
Regardless, I am hereby declaring the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers a drama-free zone. Please listen, Steelers.