On the Contrary: Don’t Kick Steeler Nation While We’re Down Feb09

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On the Contrary: Don’t Kick Steeler Nation While We’re Down

So that was it. NFL football is no more, possibly for much longer than the scheduled seven months if the probable lockout happens. It was not a happy note to end on for a Steelers fan like myself, watching the team lose while a cheering national media favored the Packers. There was the sense that the once-respected Steelers were the villains of the game. After the game it didn’t take long for me to start receiving gloating messages informing me that I deserved this disappointment since I was “cheering for a rapist.” Which is, of course ridiculous. I was cheering for a team, not for a rapist. He’s just a player on that team.

For any non-sports fan that spent the last year on Mars, the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger, was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student in a small town Georgia bar last May. No charges were filed, but Big Ben’s image went into the toilet, culminating in a four game suspension for violating the personal conduct policy of the NFL.

Soon after this happened, non-Steeler friends of mine started jumping all over me, wondering how I could continue to support such a despicable human being. This was really disturbing, because I didn’t want to support a rapist, but I still was behind my Steelers. What a conundrum. Thankfully, it all went away once the games started. This is as it should be.

For the sake of this argument, let’s assume that Roethlisberger is guilty, putting aside the fact that charges were never filed (based on the accuser’s wishes), the police report makes everything seem a lot more complicated than it was reported, and none of us were actually there to confirm what happened. At the very least, Big Ben seems to have a reputation for being an arrogant, unlikable boor. Sure, he seems to have rehabilitated himself throughout the season—primarily through taking his team to the Super Bowl and smiling while talking to reporters—but this smacks of effort on his part. Whatever the case I never cared much for him as a person in the first place, and that was only cemented by this controversy.

But should that effect how I feel about the Steelers? Maybe a little. But when you think about it, it’s kind of ridiculous that we pretend what athletes are like personally has any bearing on our rooting interests for teams. Since we don’t really know any of them, what does it matter? I probably would not like 99% of professional athletes if I actually knew them. Most would be very boring. They spend most of their lives and energies exercising and thinking about playing games. For taking this narrow focus to life, they are rewarded with more money in a year than I am likely to see in my lifetime. Many are arrogant, intellectually incurious Republicans (not that there’s anything wrong with that) who think Jesus helps them win when they play well but never hold the Man Upstairs responsible for their failures (with the notable of exception of Steve Johnson). These are not really people I have any interest in knowing or becoming friends with.

Nor should it matter, really. I don’t cheer for the people on a team. I cheer for the colors. I cheer for the place the team plays for. I cheer for all of those people back in Western Pennsylvania who I know are watching along with me. I hate teams like the New England Patriots and their quarterback Tom Brady, but I would love him if he were wearing black and gold and playing in Pittsburgh. I don’t care what he’s like as a person—I hate him because he plays for another team. And I think most sports fans, if they would be completely honest, would have to admit the same thing.

A game is in its way like a work of art. I’m not trying to extol the beauty of sport here, but we watch a sporting event for the same reasons we read a novel, go to a movie, or listen to music. We want an emotional experience. The background of the people creating that experience really does not come into the emotional equation. Director Roman Polanski drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl, but that does not influence my appreciation of CHINATOWN.  Record producer Phil Spector is a convicted murderer, but that doesn’t affect my feelings when I listen to The Ronettes.

I’m not absolving people of their crimes. But at the same time, appreciating their work or cheering for a team the play on is not the same thing as endorsing them as people or their behavior. Sporting events, like works of art, should be allowed to stand on their own, apart from the outside antics of their players.

All of this is really just a long way of me pleading for people to give Steeler Nation a break. We lost the Super Bowl. Can we stop being villains now?