Not Completely Thrilled

I confess that my first reaction last night, at the end of the Steelers' victory over the Ravens, was dismay -- that the possibility of real conversations about the future of Pittsburgh's economy (jobs? population growth and loss? the mayoral election? fixing the morass of local bureaucracies? cleaning up the environment?) will be put on hold for two more weeks, while all of Pittsburgh whips itself into a frenzy about the Steelers possibly winning the Super Bowl for a sixth time.

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.


9 Responses to "Not Completely Thrilled"

Anonymous said... 1/19/2009 4:02 PM

what a predictably sour response to the game! If the Pitt Panthers make it to the Final Four... will you blame them for distracting Pittsburgh for a few more weeks as the region falls into the abyss?

GO STEELERS! Let's win one for... the other hand.

Mike Madison said... 1/19/2009 4:09 PM

I wouldn't blame the Panthers any more than I blame the Steelers (who, to be clear, are blameless). Shakespeare never said it better: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings." The evidence of sports mania distracting the region from bigger things is right in front of our eyes, and I blogged about it two weeks ago.

Jerry said... 1/20/2009 4:33 PM

I'm not sure how you get from "Pete Rozelle put football on TV a lot" to "football is the least populist sport around." The NFL has greater parity than any major US sports league. The Cardinals were 8-8 last year. Miami was 1-15 last year, and they made the playoffs.

What are the chances that 2008's last-place baseball team will make the playoffs in 2009? Pretty slim. What are the chances that the rich (Yankees, Red Sox, Angels) will get richer? Pretty good.

Parity is not the same as populism, of course, but there are a lot of commonalities.

Besides, every town needs a shared goal and a common identity. It's pretty quixotic to ask people to get excited enough about regional economic indicators that they'll paint their faces, so in lieu of that, maybe the Steelers aren't such a bad thing for us to rally around.

Mike Madison said... 1/20/2009 4:55 PM

Jerry, I think that you're mis-reading what "populism" means in this context. It doesn't mean that poor teams have the opportunity to become rich teams. It means, literally, "of the people." Baseball is traditionally populist in the sense that it has long been (until very, very recently) a game "of the people," and especially of the working person. For decades, baseball was a blue-collar sport. Anyone could play; often, anyone did play; and almost anyone could afford to attend games in small towns as well as large ones. Baseball was a distinctly American sport; it was everywhere. (Go see the Wild Things! They're great!)

Football was the game of the elite. Not professional football, though; professional football was for decades just not very important and in any case far less important than college football. *College* football defined the sport, and college football was accompanied for many decades by an image of snooty college boys, and snooty alumni, waving pennants while wearing raccoon coats.

In short, football was for the rich; baseball -- populist sport -- was for everybody.

Rozelle and TV started to change all that in the early 1970s, by making the NFL a pseudo-everybody-league. Rozelle expanded the audience for the league enormously, and worked hard to create the impression that the NFL wasn't just for rich folks. But the NFL's populism, such as it is, is carefully marketed and manufactured. Few of us play football; few of us can afford to buy a ticket to the games; many of us can afford to buy a jersey, paint our faces, and enjoy the festivities vicariously. The NFL is populist in the sense that television is populist: everyone can watch. Some people might tell me to "get with the program." I have a Mean Joe Greene jersey, and I was wearing it on Sunday. But that phrase is telling.

So I'm not down on sport-as-social-uniter. I am down on *football,* at least professional football, as social uniter. (In the case of the Steelers, I simply find it interesting that the region is enormously nostalgic for an era in which Pittsburgh suffered so profoundly.) For their identity-shaping and preserving features, I prefer baseball, or high school football, or -- in most countries other than the U.S. -- football (soccer, as we call it), all of which have greater populist roots and potential than anything that the NFL can offer.

Jerry said... 1/20/2009 5:05 PM

OK, I can agree with that. The way I was looking at it was based on a sort of anthropomorphizing of cities (or, specifically, baseball franchises in cities). In that sense, I still think baseball is far less populist. But I see what you mean.

And yeah, the Pirates really are a FAR better metaphor for the city than the Steelers. Keep doing the same thing every year, keep running out the same tired old players (or, in the Pirates' case, running out NEW tired old players), grin and say "Everything will be better this year." Or just accept mediocrity.

Bram Reichbaum said... 1/20/2009 8:48 PM

First of all, let's go Steelers. It's time to get Two-Fisted.

Secondly, I read in the Trib that Strip District kitchze vendors were ebullient, hollering, "The recession is over!" Sales expectations were enormously exceeded.

It would be interesting to track whether the Super Bowl Blip in the Pittsburgh economy results in a Super Bowl Bounce, or a Super Bowl Hangover.

Anonymous said... 1/21/2009 12:32 PM

A Ringy for the Thingy!

illyrias said... 1/22/2009 2:17 PM

My experience with football games in Europe (aka soccer) is that the tickets are just as expensive if not more than here for NFL tickets. Certainly, soccer has a world-wide following of playing it in the streets though - much more than baseball and tag football.

Even though the Pirates suck, it was very exciting to move to Pittsburgh and realize I can just go to a baseball game whenever I want. Coming from the land of Red Sox and Yankees - where seeing a game with your family is almost as price-prohibitive as a Steelers game - the accessibility of the Pirates was a revelation.

Mike Madison said... 1/22/2009 2:32 PM

Over the last 20 years, the interests behind world football, and especially those behind European and most especially English football, have worked to move its professional versions, including but not limited to the top divisions, up-market. Between TV contracts, reduction or elimination of restrictions on player transfers, ticket prices, merchandise sales, and stadium and seating redesign, football is no longer nearly the working man's or working person's game that it once was.

Kids -- and adults -- once played baseball and softball in streets and parks in the US far more than they do today.

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About Pittsblog

Updated September 2020:

Pittsblog 2.0 was written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, from January 2004 through December 2011.

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at, on law and technology, and in some of Pittsburgh's classier professional media venues.

Chris Briem of Null Space drops by Pittsblog from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.


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