Thursday, July 14, 2011
The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Public Consciousness: an Alternate Reality
For an organization known for its consistency, the Steelers sure do find themselves in the center of controversy quite often these days. The most recent case, of course, is James Harrison speaking out on a number of topics in an interview with Men's Journal.
Maybe it is because of their place in the league, that their unmatched record of success naturally causes us to pay attention when their players -- their stars -- wind up in the news, and that may be a part of it. But I think there is something more to it, and in addition to making headlines on the field, the quartet of Harrison, Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall and Hines Ward has managed to take center stage on just about every pressing social issue over the past year. Each individual case has been a story in its own right, a display of how not to do something even if the intent was "right." What's resulted is a polarizing (can something be considered polarizing if there is a near-unanymous feeling that these players are "wrong?") mix of big names doing public things that beg big questions about how athletes -- and football players in particular -- should act.
From Rashard Mendenhall tweeting about Osama Bin Laden's assassination to Hines Ward getting arrested for DUI to Roethlisberger's indiscretions of all sorts since he entered the NFL, it's does seem like an uncanny amount of negative attention that the Steelers have drawn of late. As unfortunate as it is (and it's really unfortunate) I presume that plenty of players around the league have similar issues with alcohol and treating women the right way, like Ward and Roethlisberger. There appears to be an epidemic of this kind of misconduct that won't end until, I don't know, something REALLY bad happens. I emphasize "really" because we all know that simply "bad" things have happened far too many times already. Let's just hope the human carnage, literal or figurative, is limited in this process.
The thing is, I've always taken issue with the belief that athletes are somehow inherently more prone to commit these kinds of crimes. I see plenty of jerks walking around every day, and for every poor sport that gets paid to play I could show you a handful of the same types of losers from my men's leagues. I cannot imagine that these same people who don't mind shoving an elbow into my lower back and calling me homophobic slurs at 10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night at Chelsea Piers possess some moral inhibition to drinking and driving or mistreating other people that separates them from their better compensated (in most cases) professional athlete counterparts.
What really fascinated me is not these cases. I fully accept that there will be short-sighted people from all walks of life, be they athletes or bankers or janitors or government officials. They will, or should, be punished by the law if possible (Hines Ward) and by the NFL if the law limits the extent to which they can be charged/prosecuted (Roethlisberger). What is worth discussing, in my mind, is the phenomenon of these guys speaking out on controversial topics and the ways they choose to do it. Mendenhall chose 140 character fragments to not only give his take on the events of September 11 and Bin Laden and religion and morality, but also on people's need to "think." Pretty heady stuff for a 24-year old to try to tackle over that medium. In other words, regardless of what he was trying to say and the popular predisposition to demonize any who challenge such a sensitive issue in the mainstream, the vehicle he chose to drive his points was skidding out of control before he even turned the key.
Harrison's story, or at least this chapter of it, is a little different in that he made some comments that were controversial but within the realm of understandable thought (about commissioner Goodell) and some others that seemed unnecessary (about his quarterback). If the Roethlisberger quote wasn't unprovoked, then it was absolutely something that he could have withheld in this kind of interview setting. I have interviewed a fair share of sports figures and am pretty sure that the distinction between "on the record" and "off the record" is generally understood on both sides. Either way, he said some things about how Roethlisberger is not Peyton Manning (fact), and somehow in his mind that was appropriate. Even I know there is a jock code that says those kinds of things are taken more seriously within locker rooms -- or maybe even within organizations, we'll see -- than the kinds of crimes that Ward and Roethlisberger (I'm obligated to say "allegedly") committed. I got a message from RFH contributor and fellow Steeler fan Scott Simon saying that Harrison crossed the line and should get shipped off to Oakland. Another buddy, one who played offensive line at UCLA and for the Bengals, suggested that the comments reflected Harrison's poor character. It wasn't explicit that he was referring to the Roethlisberger comments, but given the context and previous conversations, I don't think he was offended by the remarks about Goodell.
What does this all mean? I think it's an indication of the values of the NFL and of the country that supports it for sure. The hierarchy of offenses is tough to gauge, especially when you are judging four players who are undisputed "winners." If I'm clear, we think that athletes commenting on social issues is the worst. Or maybe that's tied with athletes disparaging their star quarterbacks. Mistreatment of women is bad, but we have no problem brushing that aside if we can assume that the women (or girls) are after the athletes' fame or money or whatever. And of course, if the athlete is the quarterback of a good/great football team and manages to stay out of trouble, win and successfully execute the standard public relations campaign following the event/crime, then it's no problem. DUI's are looked down upon in some circles, and some in the media have been more vocal of late, but I doubt NFL locker rooms and the majority of fans are up in arms over smily-faced Hines Ward, America's most recent best dancing person, putting other peoples' lives in danger.
All of these things are undeniable and present in all corners of our society. I will also be the first to admit that Mendenhall's comments sit differently with me because I'm not out in the streets crushing Budweisers and yelling derogatory shit at Muslims and mosques. Do I think he went about it the wrong way? Sure. Do I love that he spends some of his time not playing football preaching the value of thinking? Absolutely. Neither he nor Harrison were particularly eloquent in their messages and both conveyed varying degrees of ignorance, but at the end of the day, it strikes me as bizarre that their offenses have drawn more ire than the ones of their teammates Ward and Roethlisberger.
Just like everyone's favorite punchline Charlie Sheen, it matters how the message is delivered, and I get that too. Sheen may have been right about the producer of his show treating him and others with disrespect, but because of the way he went about saying it, it loses credibility. With Mendenhall and Harrison, the language they used had the same effect. But behind all of it lies a tremendous amount of emotion that is tied to the most visceral components of the human psyche: politics, livelihood, health, religion. That emotion is easy for people dismiss because their situations, at least on the surface, do not resemble those of professional athletes. Most Americans envision having a career in which they work for a couple of decades and play by a certain set of rules that society dictates because the vast majority of its inhabitants fall into this largely similar category. They can feel free to speak out on issues because if they say something stupid, the consequences are relatively insignificant. Even if they say or do something stupid and lose their job, even that pales in comparison to the scope of people affected by Mendenhall making comments about an event that cost many lives and affected many more.
But Mendenhall won't lose his job and neither will Harrison. One or both could certainly get traded (see: Holmes, Santonio), although that is not likely. At the end of the day, just like with Roethlisberger and Ward, if the money is right and the play on the field is "above the line," as Mike Tomlin would say, they'll stick around. The court of public opinion has ruled and will continue to rule by this bizarre code, but the response today should be the same as it was when Charles Barkley proclaimed that he is not a role model, although you could easily argue that the decision is not up to the athlete, but rather to the people who decide to make them such. In doing so, I just wonder how many people will continue to make their decisions based on who wins and who loses, and if everyone is winning, what will be important beyond that?