Fresh Eyes on Pittsburgh, Part 3

Here is the next, overdue, installment on my brief “Fresh Eyes on Pittsburgh” series. Read the first installment for the background and the premise.

Today's topic: arts and sports in Pittsburgh.

Well, sports. There's quite a bit going on in Pittsburgh's arts world - music, visual art, dance and theater and other performing arts, craft, writing and publishing -- but sports knit Pittsburgh together in public ways that the arts world, at least today, just can't. As to arts, there are the big public institutions: the Cultural District, the Carnegie Museums, the big performance stages Downtown and elsewhere. There is Pittsburgh's still-in-rediscovery arts history: jazz and blues, Teenie Harris, August Wilson, Andy Warhol, Hollywood legends like Gene Kelly and Shirley Jones, more recent they-come-and-then-they-go performance spaces (the Oakland Beehive, Club Laga), and undoubtedly other things that don't come immediately to my mind as I sit here typing. And there is Pittsburgh's emerging and increasingly robust contemporary avant-garde: hip hop stars Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller, Girl Talk, the gallery "scene" in Lawrenceville and whatever you call the cool stuff that's happening in East Liberty in and around the Waffle Shop and the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. Pittsburgh is no New York and never will be, but there is a growing amount to be proud of and to be challenged by in Pittsburgh, and that's a great thing.

But I digress.

Sports are the undisputed kings of Pittsburgh's cultural life. And when I say "sports," today I mean "football," and when I say "football," for almost all intents and purposes, I mean the Steelers. High school football rules Friday night social life in Western Pennsylvania to a degree that's matched only in Texas and parts of Ohio, I am told, and college teams in the region elicit passions of their own. I'm looking at you, Pitt and Duquesne, as well as programs like RMU, CMU, and smaller regional programs like Cal U., W&J, Slippery Rock, and IUP, among others. Moreover, Penn State and its alumni are massive presences in Pittsburgh, which is something that surprised me when I moved to Pittsburgh more than a decade ago. But today the PSU presence here makes sense -- Penn State counts several hundred thousand living alumni -- making it all the more disappointing that Pitt and Penn State haven't played each other in football in many, many years. I'll venture only one other comment here about Penn State: I have never encountered any other university anywhere where the identities of so many alumni and students are so directly bound up with the image and influence of one person -- Joe Paterno -- and the school's football program.

That observation regarding Penn State might be scaled up and over and applied to Pittsburgh's relationship with the Steelers:

The Steelers are Pittsburgh; Pittsburgh is the Steelers.  More than a handful of people in Pittsburgh are not Steelers fans, or don't care about football at all, or don't pay attention to when and where the games are played. But it is impossible to live in Pittsburgh and not have a sense of the role that the team and its history occupy both in community culture and in defining the world-wide Pittsburgh "diaspora" of ex-pats and those who fancy themselves Pittsburghers just because they have that kind of imagination. Stuck in Reykavik on a Sunday afternoon? They have a Steelers bar for you. The place is called Bjarni Fel. Walk in wearing your Steelers jersey, and you'll be greeted like a hero. When I first moved to town, a colleague who had recently joined the Pitt faculty -- a woman, and an athlete but not a football fan -- told me that she had quickly decided to pick up a bit of Steelers trivia solely because she wanted to be able to keep up at parties. The line that she mastered, in 1998, was this: "How about that Immaculate Reception?"

I grew up rooting for the 49ers and the Raiders, and nothing like Steelers culture exists on the West Coast, or just about anywhere else, I am told, with the possible exception of Green Bay. And by "Steelers culture," and by the phrase "Steelers are Pittsburgh; Pittsburgh is the Steelers," I mean the sense that in Pittsburgh, the Steelers aren't just a team, and their fate isn't just a series of wins and losses, the Super Bowl or bust. If they play well and play honorably -- that second part is key -- then Pittsburghers internalize their success. There's a spring in their steps on Monday morning if Tomlin's crew does well, as if they -- the fans -- have done something swell. If a player or the team lets us down, on the field or (worse) off of it, then the hurt cuts deeply. A philandering quarterback or drug abusing wide receiver betrays the entire regional family, not just his teammates. The ownership family, the Rooneys, are lionized as patrons of Pittburgh; the family history -- the source of the money that helped the Chief (Art Rooney) acquire the team -- is well-known but rarely mentioned. It's a skeleton in our own closets.  This isn't "12th Man" stuff; this is positively tribal, and medieval, or even ancient.  Most modern sports franchises "represent" their cities in the sense that they are mercenaries, hired to do battle with rival cities in metaphorical substitutes for real wars fought between Greek city states.  Pittsburgh's  battles are still metaphorical, and our mercenaries are still mercenaries, but the city-state idea is pretty vivid here.  The players are us; we are the players.  The players get their cash from the team, but their spiritual and some financial subsidies from the whole place.

What I like most about the Steelers, though, is that the team reciprocates. The current ownership, the coaches, and the players all "get" the fact that they are accountable to the fans in a way that directly reflects the region's sense of itself. The Steelers are not simply supposed to win, and to win a lot, and to win more Super Bowls than any other NFL franchise. They are supposed to win honorably, and when they lose, if they play dishonorably, then they deserve to lose. After the Steelers lost to the Baltimore Ravens a week ago on the final Ravens drive of the game, I listened to a lot of fans, and read a lot of commentary, that concluded that the Steelers simply didn't deserve to win. That was said in sadness, not in anger. On that day, on that field, the other team was simply better. Pittsburghers like to think that they respect the superiority of those who vanquish us, when that superiority is justly earned.  It is almost tangibly Homeric, not in the "epic" sense, but in the "narrative of morality and virtue" sense.

I suspect that this cultural meaning of the Steelers, more than the brilliant 1970s history of the team or the anachronistic name of the franchise, accounts for its stunning popularity among women. I don't have the statistic handy, but I believe that it is common knowledge that the Steelers count more women among their fan base than almost all other NFL teams -- and that the team maintains this edge in an era when female NFL fandom is on the rise. I like to think that women "get" the culture of civic and communal virtue that surrounds of the Steelers precisely and explicitly in a way that men, stereotypically, only "get" implicitly. What happens on the Steelers field and what happens off the Steelers field are virtually equivalent.

That's my theory, anyway. [I wrote a little more about the Steelers, here.]

It turns out, if you're a newcomer to Pittsburgh, that there are other professional sports in town. The Penguins, in the National Hockey League, have had a remarkable run of success in the last 20 years (well, two runs, really, one called "Mario" and the second called "Sid") and Pens fans are as passionate as they come in ice hockey. In some quarters, Pens fans may be more fanatic about the team and the sport, as a team and sport, than many Steelers fans are about the Steelers. I am not a hockey fan, although I have cheered when watching Game 7 of a certain Stanley Cup final. My status aside, though, ice hockey simply doesn't have the resonance across the entire region that football does.

There is baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates play in a stadium that is as lovely and inexpensive to attend as any in Major League Baseball. The whole world knows that the team has not had a winning record in close to 20 years, a record of futility for high-level sports that is unmatched on the planet. That's a shame, because underneath Pittsburgh's hard-edged football and ice hockey helmets is the soul of a baseball town: a place filled with community and family and children following in their parents' sporting footsteps, a town with a blue-collar and working class ethos (despite the visible presence of a long-standing and supremely wealthy upper-class crust) that is perfectly suited to a game that here and there recalls its blue-collar, working class origins.

And that note leads me, finally, to the sport that I care most about, which is the other football, soccer. Soccer, like baseball, was once a blue-collar, working class sport, and in many countries around the world, and in some communities in the US, it remains the sport of the people, rather than the sport of kings. Soccer in Pittsburgh moves along quietly, below the radar. Youth soccer here is booming, as it is booming everywhere. There is a semi-pro team in town, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, that refuses to go away despite modest attendance and modest performance success, but that has been doing the right thing for a decade -- working and teaching in the community -- and may yet re-emerge as a publicly successful sports franchise. The most interesting thing about soccer in Pittsburgh is just how long the sport has been played here. Organized soccer in Pittsburgh goes back roughly as far (about 100 years) as organized American football. The men who worked in the coal mines in Beadling back then -- Italians -- founded an athletic club that is still, today, one of the top youth soccer clubs in the United States.

In the end, I think that's the thing that Fresh Eyes see in Pittsburgh.  Underneath the contemporary performance and community connections are decades of history, waiting to be excavated.

Enough for today. Next in the series: Politics and government. The last post in the series will look at the environment. And then I'll be done.


1 Response to "Fresh Eyes on Pittsburgh, Part 3"

carpet cleaning said... 11/22/2011 4:08 AM

Thanks Mike. We enjoy your blog.
For us, the Steelers are indeed Pittsburgh.

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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.

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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.

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