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Freelancer in a Company Town

In addition to being a lapsed Presbyterian who rarely attends church and can go years without a service, I’m now a lapsed Steelers fan.

This might not seem like much to readers unfamiliar with the cult-like devotion many Pittsburghers and ex-patriot Burghers have for the Steelers Football team. But to be a lifelong Pittsburgher and not care about Steelers games, which I’ve been for a couple years, is like being an atheist living in a religious community. Such a man is wise to not voice his true feelings among devotees (especially around alcohol), because he could get punched in the face.

And frankly these days my gut reaction sometimes is to think NFL fans in general, and Steelers fans in particular, are shallow knuckleheads--company men and women who mindlessly support the organization. I should know; I was one of them.
Please understand that most of my friends and all of my family are diehard Steelers fans. So I have to watch what I say, since fans are everywhere; I can get into trouble fast, even on a recent business phone call to New York. After some banter from my contact regarding the Steelers and NFL, meant as a friendly offering to a Pittsburgher, I started to speak my mind about Bonerhead Ben Roethlisberger and I realize my NYC contact could be thinking, Who is this crazyman?
Before you accuse me of being a hater: I played football in high school (the entire game except kickoffs—the postgame headaches lasted days) and for a year in college. Even as a kid, I played Pee Wee Football, so young that we were grouped by weight. Some of my earliest coaches on Bellevue Bulldogs pee wee football team, like Jumbo or Kunsy, would yell instructions before we did the Oklahoma Drill: “When that guy gets the ball, kill him!”

We weren’t playing by all the written rules, even at 12 years old. We were taught not to hit with our heads, while simultaneously learning to hit with them. Many of us used our heads and helmets as weapons, intending to hurt the opposing players, not fully comprehending that we could also be hurting ourselves. We knew before junior high football that guys with the most “sticks” (marks left from the different colors of other team’s helmets) were the toughest.

When we got our “bell rung” and were dizzy from a hit during a play and heading off the field for a break, sometimes our coaches would break smelling salts under our nose and send us back onto the field. Whoever heard of Concussion Protocol?
But we were all just dumb kids, intellectually speaking, back then. We didn’t know. We worshipped at the altar of Steelers Center Mike Webster, a pro whose dedication to the sport was legendary. As we young footballers took a muddy knee to kneel and rest on the field during a practice, our coaches would tell of the devotion Webby had for the game—he would run laps up and down the stadium stairs beforepractice!

That was long ago, when the famous pro was still playing, before Webster died mostly forgotten by the NFL, at age 50. I wrote the story of his death for my first Reuters article, 14 years ago. I called him “the unbendable core” of the Steelers’ Super Bowl-winning offensive line.
The world wasn’t so aware then of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, but the examination of Webster’s brain revealed the disease. Now, with the movie “Concussion” playing in theaters nationwide, few haven’t heard of it. And while awareness of CTE and the dangers of playing football at all levels is much more widespread, society still hasn’t responded adequately to combating the harms of this blood sport.

I am on the side Steve Almond, author of “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto,” who argues that NFL teams should become public property, owned by the cities they represent, with profits from them going into funds to improve society. Maybe it’s naïve to hope for such an end, but I’d like to see it, because I agree with Almond in not believing in what we are supporting when we pay for pro football—brain damage, ruined bodies and athletes treated far worse than plow horses. Not to mention the entitlement of men barely out of their teens, some of whom end up shooting guns in nightclubs, sexually abusing women, or far worse. These bad boys are the idols of our age—knuckleheads who can throw a football or make a tackle, but cannot keep their pants zipped or their guns holstered once they get rich.
So, I won’t be watching the Steelers in the playoffs. And I won’t be in a bad mood if they lose, or in a good mood if they win, as it seems all of Pittsburgh is the day after a Steelers loss or win. I don’t wish the Steelers or their fans ill will, but I think it’s time we took these players and their team owners off the pedestals. And it’s time society quit paying to make these billionaire team owners richer, by building stadiums for them.

This is not 1970s rustbelt Pittsburgh in decline, when the Steelers wins were a morale booster akin to lifesaving blood for many of us who lived here in those tough days. But yet, decades later, a quarter of the Steel City’s people live in poverty, according to the Census. You can't help but wonder what the millions spent on Heinz Field might have done to alleviate poverty.
I know I have down a complete change of heart on this team, and I've changed for many reasons, some of which aren't detailed here. One reason is that embracing the Steelers as somehow representative of Pittsburgh or its residents is too easy, as well as being lazy, slack and stupid. And false. It's simple as hell to put on black and yellow on a Sunday, but much harder to wrap your mind around the fact that poor people in Pittsburgh's Homewood section, for example, are your Pittsburgh Brothers and Sisters. 
These things and people matter, because true solidarity is what we need right now. In a nation where kids are shooting each other and others over the most trifling of matters, paying homage and riches to a sport that glorifies brain-murdering violence (while pretending not to do so), and which also doesn't fully own up to how it has mistreated players past and present, is just wrong. It sends the wrong messages.
Enough already. Football is a game, and they are just players. If we must subsidize and applaud this bloodsport, NFL profits must go to the people.

A native Pittsburgher and lifelong resident, Jonathan Barnes is a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh.

This post first appeared on Barnestormin, please read the originial post: here

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Freelancer in a Company Town


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