The Steelers Find Themselves Between a Rock and a Hard Place Thanks to Ben Roethlisberger
The Pittsburgh Steelers brand has always been clean. Or at least clean insofar as multi-million dollar NFL operations go. But this off-season, more than any other, the Steelers brand has been severely tarnished.
I’m not sure what constitutes blue collar in the era of iPads and Twitter, TMZ and sexting, but the Steelers still had that aura. Blue collar, baby!
Still largely a family run business, we all (Pittsburghers and non-Pittsburghers alike) like to think of the Steelers as a mom and pop shop, the football equivalent of something you might see on “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives,” rather than the multi-million dollar business that it is. It’s easier to understand that way and much more fun. Just a couple of Irish guys and some tackling dummies on the North Side. Yup, that sums up the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Combine the family thing with the city itself. Nevermind that the mills and mines and glass factories are long gone. Pittsburgh is blue collar, baby! (Frankly, I think those of us who live here love to perpetuate that reputation because we enjoy it. And in truth, despite our many flaws [and they are legion], Pittsburgh is a city that lacks affect — our finest trait and one easily mistaken for “blue collar.”)
Then there was the football itself.
In the 1970’s, the Steelers were the team that tried to beat the opposition into submission. They usually succeeded. They ran the ball and played vicious defense. As the 1980’s dawned, they hung on to the old ways, eschewing things like the shotgun formation, the West Coast offense and going no-huddle. In fact, they barely concealed their disdain for teams that road the wave of the future. The idea of Steeler football, the notion of it, not the reality of it, is that there is no honor in out-smarting your opponent: you’re supposed to just beat them. Coach Chuck Noll famously referred to then-Bengals coach Sam Wyche as “Wicky-Whacky”, a disparaging reference to Wyche’s use of trick plays and slippery formations. Gimmicks. The Steelers don’t need no stinking gimmicks.
Aaarrrgh. Or something like that.
Then they hired Bill Cowher, a native son, who’s Crafton upbringing could be heard in his every syllable. His commitment to smashmouth (or, in Pittsburghese “smashmahth”) football just cemented the notion of Steelers football as something simple. Not quite pure, but still somehow more connected to Model T Fords and family picnics than the 1990’s. There was Steelers football. And then there was everything else.
It all fed the convenient aura and the legend grew. The years came and went. Some good and some bad, in football terms, that is.
In financial terms, all the years were good. The Steelers brand grew. They were consistently among the NFL’s most marketable franchises. “Steelers Football” meant so many things to so many people on different levels because we wanted it to. The League cashed in and the franchise made money hand over fist.
They did many things right. The Rooney rule leaps to mind. They showed patience that other franchises often lacked. They didn’t spend money like some prodigal son, spoiled brat owners I could point to. And Dan Rooney was always among the most reasonable, calmest of the owners.
But nothing is ever so simple as Steelers good, everybody else bad.
On the field, they adapted. They threw the ball and used trickeration. Yet the reputation for “lunch bucket” guys persisted.
Multi-million dollar contracts were handed out and untold profits rolled in, but they were still working class stiffs.
There were very creditable allegations that many of the 1970’s Steelers pioneered steroid use (not banned at the time, but still …) It went largely ignored by both the national media and the fan base. The Steelers did things the right way.
Everybody from the NFL Commissioner to fans in Beaver, Pennsylvania liked the idea of Steelers football as it had come to be known and so it remained. No matter that the facts pointed to the Steelers being a business, not a metaphor, the brand seemed untouchable, impervious to time or trends or individual personalities.
First there were the allegations of sexual assault asserted in a civil lawsuit by a Reno, Nevada woman. Then came the night in Milledgevile, Georgia. The facts that have come to light are horrible and ugly at best, but the District Attorney does not have the evidence to prosecute. A third alleged incident came to light today.
The Reno lawsuit has more holes than a whiffle ball and the timing of the most recent investigation is suspicious. But still, smoke and fire go hand in hand.
And “not guilty” is in a different zip code than “innocent.”
Ben’s not going to a Georgia jail, and even though I do not view athletes as role models, nor do I see athletics as some sort of facile morality play, I still think he should not receive a “get out of jail” free card from the league or the Steelers organization.
Perception, meet reality. Though we should have known all along that the Steelers are just one of 32 NFL franchises, they have come back to the pack. Maybe everybody’s better off this way, seeing the Steelers clearly: as a business. Well-run and successful, but still, a business operation. Nevertheless, you’ll allow me to despise Roethlisberger for dragging the franchise down into the mud with him.
A wise friend pointed out, the Steelers are concerned with three things: (a) money, (b) winning and (c) reputation; and everything they do is geared to meet at least two of those requirements.
(a) They have a lot of money sunk into Ben.
(b) Ben has helped them to win two Super Bowls in the last four years.
(c) Ben’s reputation is lower than that of a shit-house rat. (By way of example, one of my closest friends and the biggest Steelers fan I know, sent his Roethlisberger jersey to the Steelers offices with a note explaining why, i.e., his complete and utter disdain for Ben Roethlisberger’s off-field behavior.)
Can the organization continue the Steelers Brand with Roethlisberger on the field? Or is it tarnished so long as he’s in town? The question for the franchise becomes one of weight — How much do they value their reputation above the money and the winning?