In the four-plus years I've been writing for BTSC, I've often joked that it would be nice to receive some hateful email from readers, email that included words like "idiot" to describe me and my knowledge of the Steelers and the game of football.
While I have received a lot of email from readers over the years, it's mostly been positive.
However, I finally did receive that "you're an idiot" email this past Friday, but it wasn't from just your ordinary, everyday fan. No, this email came directly from a former Steelers offensive lineman who was a member of the Super Bowl XLIII team. In the off-chance this particular email didn't actually come from this former player (although, I have no doubt that it did), I won't give his name away or quote much of what he said. (I think it's important to be responsible and careful in situations like this--two things he accused me of being the exact opposite of in his email.)
Anyway, it was an article I wrote not long ago, where I mentioned the struggles Ben Roethlisberger once faced behind the offensive line this player was a part of in the latter portion of the previous decade. While it wasn't a personal attack on him, I did single his name out, and in all fairness, I can see where he is coming from. If I were in his shoes, I'd probably call me an idiot, too. Hey, when you write an article that literally thousands of people will read, and you criticize someone's performance, you should expect backlash and insults--even if it's from the actual player you criticized.
It was kind surreal to read, though. I mean, here I am, a fan of the Steelers since I was seven years old, and the first real communication I have with one of their players is an email calling me, among other things, an idiot.
As is usually the case in these situations when a player's performance is criticized by someone who isn't an expert, he questioned my qualifications on judging offensive line play, and he was right. I'm not qualified to judge offensive line play. But he also said that people like me--uniformed bloggers, so to speak--"affect families."
OK, so if I'm not qualified to judge or comment on offensive line play, how can my opinions affect someone's family and have any influence on his livelihood? You can't have it both ways in that situation, can you?
As a football writer on a fan site, I understand the stigma a lot of people attach to what I do. Players obviously have disdain for people like me. And those real reporters, the ones with access to the players--players don't like them all that much, either--they certainly don't have much use for writers like me.
If one of us writes a straight-up news story, some people get upset because it takes hits away from the more "reputable" sites. And if someone writes an opinion piece (the style of about 99 percent of my articles on BTSC), it's the opinion of an unqualified person.
When it comes to being qualified to criticize a player's performance, I'll always come out on the losing end, because I am just a fan with an opinion. But what I find funny about players is that they'll take all the praise they can handle--they'll take it by the bushels. Sometimes, though, that praise may be as uneducated and uninformed as the negative criticism. It can be so over-the-top and ridiculous, and the player receiving it certainly isn't worthy based on his performance on the football field. However, how often do you see the Isaac Redman's of the world reach out to fans directly and thank them for their unwarranted praise? My guess is you don't see it very much.
No, I don't know all that goes into being an offensive lineman in the NFL, and that's why I don't make it a habit of breaking down tape or commenting on a player's technique (that would be foolish of me). However, I will tell you what I do know. I know that in 2008, Roethlisberger's quarterback rating of 80.1 was the lowest of his career. I also know he was sacked 46 times that year and another 50 the year after that. I know that, following a game against the Eagles in Week 3 in '08 in-which Roethlisberger was sacked nine times in a 15-6 loss, my boss defaced a picture of No. 7 that was hanging on the wall at work and made it look like he was missing several teeth. I know of the struggles Pittsburgh had running the football and converting on short-yardage situations. And finally, I know the Steelers drafted four offensive linemen in either the first or second round over a three year period, starting in 2010 as a means to make up for the deficiencies of the unit--a unit that was considered by some to be the worst to ever win a Super Bowl.
But, again, to comment on one player's offensive line play (even if it was just a throw away comment), was that really fair of me? Probably not, and if I was a real reporter with access to players, I certainly would choose my words more carefully. When it comes to that, I now have a whole new level of respect for beat reporters and what they must deal with on a regular basis. As fans, we often wonder why people like Ed Bouchette sometimes shy away from asking those hard-hitting questions. But those beat reporters and local columnists, they have to work with these players and coaches every day. Can you imagine being a columnist like Gene Collier and finding yourself in the same air space as a 300 pound lineman whose performance you just criticized in a Post Gazette article the day before?
It's easy for me to sit in my living room and write whatever I want about anyone and anything and not have to worry about any physical confrontations or being called a "turd" by Ryan Clark as he stands a few feet away from me in the locker room.
Ever notice how guys like Mike Tomlin and Roethlisberger are friendlier with national media types like a CBS broadcast crew, yet, they often show disdain for the local reporters? It's because those national reporters, they can blow into town a few times a year and can ask any question they want; they don't care, because they won't be around for very long. And besides that, since their stories will reach a larger audience more rapidly, do you really want to show yourself in a bad light?
Even though I'm not one to write over-the-top sensationalized stories or attack players directly on social media, this little experience has taught me a lesson. Maybe I need to be a touch more sensitive about what I write as it pertains to calling out certain players by name.
And, as for this particular player, while I did single him out in an article, considering he played as long as he did and started as many games as he did, he was obviously very good at his job.
However, I'll bet if I was the president of this player's fan club and devoted many hours to talking about his greatness, I never would have received an email from him thanking me for my support.
A professional athlete can choose whether or not he wants to acknowledge my support; he has the right to accommodate me or ignore me if I ask him for his autograph when he's having dinner with his family; he can choose to be a role model for my family or live his life any way he wants.
But criticism? Apparently, to a lot of athletes, when it comes from fans, that's non-negotiable.