It turns out that I'm not the only one thinking along these lines. Vannevar Bush, at WWVB, puts the point even more sharply:
For some reason, we teach our children to identify with this Steelers business in a way that they never identify with Bayer, Alcoa, Westinghouse, or any outfit that might someday employ them. Our schools have days where students wear Black And Gold™ and we indoctrinate them so they grow up to be Steelers fans, and - unless they move away to say, find work - our children grow up to support the taxes, subsidies, and give-aways that our politicians provide to this business. Good little Steelers fans!
There is very little new under the sun, and this maneuver isn't new either. Juvenal uses the phrase bread and circus to refer to the Roman practice of providing welfare and entertainment as a means of gaining political power through populism.
VB is clearly on to something, but he may overdo it just a bit. I'm not completely down on the whole Super Bowl thing. Pittsburgh (City of and region around) loves professional sports teams and identifies its cultural and political futures with those teams to a degree that may be unparalleled world-wide. In a meaningful and positive sense, Pittsburgh is going to the Super Bowl, and if Pittsburgh weren't, then this would be just another crappy, cold, grey winter in a region that sees only crappy, cold, grey winters, metaphorically speaking, even in June, July, and August. Have I mentioned that Spring Training is just around the corner?
The problem may not be that local politicians distract mindless voters with appeals to sports-based populism (Luke Steelerstahl, anyone?), but that the appeal is to the wrong sport. VB is right about the Steelers, I suspect, but wrong about the cultural and political prospects of aligning civic pride with sporting success.
Professional football is marketed as populist entertainment, but along with the more recently manufactured version of professional basketball, it is perhaps the least populist professional sport on our collective plates. The National Football League was a distinctly lesser professional sport in the national consciousness, especially compared to baseball (more on that in a moment), until the early 1970s, when Alvin Rozelle (Pete was only a nickname) married the sport to broadcast television. And what was the first NFL franchise to imprint itself on the national consciousness via broadcast television and Super Bowl success during the 1970s? You all know the answer to that one.
Pittsburghers around the world today feel the civic football populism of the Steel Curtain era -- recalling precisely the lowest point of the city's and region's 20th century history. Steelers bread and Steelers circuses keep the region mired in habits of thinking that recall the woe-is-us and damn-the-rest-of-the-world mindset bred of the demise of steel. We have to look out for ourselves, because no one else will look out for us. Read that recently? I have -- in the sports pages, in stories and columns quoting Steelers players and coaches? (It's practically tattooed on Hines Ward's forehead, much as I love how the guy plays.) With good reason. In the sports world, that's a great way to keep yourself motivated.
In the civic world, however, it's a formula for lack of ambition and lack of resistance to the interests of political elites. Vannevar is right on that point.
But the real metaphor for Pittsburgh's modern civic arc isn't the Steelers, but the Pirates. Baseball, not football, is this country's real populist entertainment, and it is baseball that has for decades -- and long before professional football -- provided the narrative thread for civic pride. If local politicians want to hitch their wagons to a cause that would elevate the ambitions of the city and the region, they'd align themselves with the Bucs, whose history throughout much of the 20th century was punctuated by spectacular success and inspiring ballplayers. Pittsburgh, city and team, was for much of the 20th century on top of the proverbial world.
At the end of the 20th century, of course, that (sporting) (civic) history was in tatters. Today, Pirates fans look back on a staggering sixteen consecutive losing seasons. I have no formula for baseball success, but until and unless the Pirates get competitive, I'd wager that Pittsburgh the city and region will remain stuck in its current low cultural gear. Imagine the phrase, "Pittsburgh is going to the World Series." (A few of you may be old enough to remember the last time that was meant something!)
What Would Vannevar Bush Do?
Beat the Cardinals, I hope. Go Steelers.
Updated at 1:30 pm: I'm not the only one noting the bread-and-circuses aspect to modern sports mania, not that I agree with the entirety of this column. Thanks to Chris Briem for the link.