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Hating on Athletes And Teams and The Crisis In Which Fans Are Engaged

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The spring of my junior year in high school, my baseball teammates and I were hard at work, looking to defend our conference and section championship from the previous six years, under the pressure of knowing this team was maybe better than all of the previous ones.

We were stacked, to be honest. From sophomores to seniors, we had 11 future scholarship players and a coaching staff of more than 50 combined years in Major League Baseball. It wouldn’t be a cakewalk, other teams had similar levels of talent, but we were ranked No. 2 in the state for a reason.

Needless to say, with that much talent, making the team was exceedingly difficult. Our coach had a rule, he wasn’t going to keep a senior to play Junior Varsity. He would need to be at least a role player on the varsity team, otherwise he cut him loose. A very difficult rule, one he always said he struggled with, but an understandable rule, too.

Understandable to reasonably-minded people. To the parent of one of the kids who would fall victim to it, not so understandable.

A day after cuts, our coach called us all into the gym. He was a talker (and a phenomenal teacher), so sitting us down to listen wasn’t rare.

The look on his face was different this time. He looked tired. Overwhelmed, even.

He called us together to let us know he wasn’t sure if he was going to continue coaching.

A parent of one of the players he cut, a senior, threatened to put a hit out for him.

His son was (rightfully) cut from the varsity baseball team, so his dad was going to have the head coach killed. The kid wasn’t good enough to play varsity. I would venture to say 95 percent of the people who were on or followed the team would agree with the coach’s decision. But it was worth threatening someone’ life over, apparently.

And that didn’t happen recently. The level of lunacy is considerably higher today, considering the access parents or fans have to players and coaches via social media. It’s scary. It’s dangerous.

Post-Gazette writer Ron Cook (fairness in savagery, I’ve ripped him in this space a few times) wrote a phenomenal piece Sunday on this topic, and considering the recent conversation we’ve had on BTSC regarding the treatment of Steelers quarterbacks all the way back to Terry Bradshaw, this topic seems especially relevant.

In that discussion, the topic of former Steelers QB Tommy Maddox’s shockingly poor game against Jacksonville in 2005 was brought up. Maddox had his worst game as a pro, without question, throwing three interceptions and fumbling once – the fumble came in overtime and wasn’t caused by a hit. He dropped the ball, and managed to kick it in the other direction, as if to say “hey Jacksonville, I’ll save you a few yards, just pick it up and score.”

The recovered the fumble but failed to score. The Steelers got the ball back, and Maddox threw a pick-six that ended the game.

I remember watching that at a bar, and was obviously upset over it. After the interception, one particularly wasted “fan” extended both middle fingers, got about two inches from one of the TVs and screamed a streak of profanities I couldn’t duplicate with my best efforts (and I’m pretty creative).

I immediately went from extreme anger at the situation to embarrassment. This guy was a complete jackass. Tommy Gun played a horrible game. No one can disagree with that statement, least of all, Maddox, the guy who saved the Steelers’ season in 2002, got hurt and replaced in 2004, and right after that interception, made himself a dog to Steeler Nation for the rest of his life.

Morons taunted his kids at school. Jackholes threw trash on his lawn (although there are differing reports on whether that actually happened. The fact everyone believes it, though, proves the point).

Are we above anything? While I’m also not a fan of the people who look down upon passionate sports fans (and cannot judge those who had a few too many and yelled at a TV during a game…or challenged Jameel McClain to a fight after he hit Heath Miller…ahem), but you just don’t see rage to that level often. It made the stories about Maddox’s yard and kids believable.

Many in the media beg you on a daily basis to not feel sorry for professional athletes for any reason. Hundreds of web sites have sprung up with the operating model of doing nothing else than make stupid jokes about something they did, or said, whether recently, or in the past.

Twitter comes alive with hate as soon as the Miami Heat go down a certain number of points at a certain time in the game. I’m not a Heat fan, and I’m not above enjoying watching them lose, but it’s a perfect example of how our sporting society now is far more about enjoying a team or a player lose than it is celebrating another team winning.

How often do you hear “I don’t care who wins, I just want LeBron to lose”? We didn’t root for anyone in the AFC Conference Championship, we cracked dumb jokes about how we’re hoping for a tie.

We can’t allow others to enjoy success and we revel in their misfortunes. I’m not advocating the support of any team outside of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the fact there are far more people who follow the NFL because they hate a team instead of following it because they love a team is pathetic.

There’s a saying applicable in every sport; My favorite teams are ‘Team A’ and whomever is playing ‘Team A’s arch rival.’ Fair enough, I suppose. I’m not above rooting against the Ravens. I know I was cheering hard for Jacksonville, Seattle and San Diego, three Ravens games I happened to watch last season. But my day wasn’t complete because of their loss. In fact, I wrote many times in comments and columns the Ravens loss to San Diego means absolutely nothing if Pittsburgh couldn’t beat San Francisco on Monday Night.

You all know what happened.

It’s as if we don’t even watch the game for the sake of watching the game, it’s more like a feud against any and all who don’t raise the same flag we do. We’re more about the symbolism of hate of others than it is appreciation and love for our own.

In researching this, I found a story about the gate sign at Denver International Airport displaying a taunting message to Steelers fans boarding the flight back to Pittsburgh after the playoff loss.

This was on a Ravens web site.

Google “I Hate Steelers Fans,” over 11 million pages are returned. There are 15 million returns for “I Love The Steelers,” and both sides have their own Facebook pages.

(incidentally, there are 4 million returns for “I Don’t Care At All About The Cleveland Browns.”)

We’re apparently smug, cocky, arrogant, the destroyer of cities, the plague of the population, the embodiment of Satan’s quest to rule the earth and generally uneducated.

We’re all of these things by rooting for a football team. Obviously, with sports fandom comes a level of aggressive drama and fleeting boosts of self-worth, but cripes, this is just stupid.

It’s this same feeling of superiority that leads to the empowerment of some not getting their way to escalate into threats of violence. As Cook points out:

Last month, Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Blake missed a wide-open 3-point shot at the end of a 77-75 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 2 of their NBA playoff series. Blake took a beating on social media. So, regrettably, did his wife, Kristen. “I hope your family gets murdered,” a tweeter wrote to her.

That’s nice. Dude misses a shot, someone hopes dude’s family is killed. Not him, mind you, the guy who missed the shot, but his family, people who have nothing to do with it.

Maybe this is a selfish stance, but we lost in the section championship that season, and many could blame the fact we had no idea if our coach was coming back (he formally quit after our last game) and the whole situation hung over our heads all year.

But we didn’t blame the kid. It wasn’t his fault his dad took something that ultimately meant very little and made it literally life and death. Maybe we were even afraid ourselves. Who knows if he was seriously going to have our coach killed. Maybe it would have happened during a game. It doesn’t take much to break concentration, and while I couldn’t say it was something we constantly thought about, it was always there.

Before we go completely overboard and smite our enemies via social media, read this excellent story by one of the best NFL writers in the business, Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union Tribune. It highlights Chargers CB Quentin Jammer’s battle with depression last season and how it greatly affected his game.

It puts things into perspective, to me, at least.

Source: Behind the Steel Curtain

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The Steelers’ “Leadership Crisis” and What It Means for the 2012 Season

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Neal asked if any of us would like to take a stab at a post proposing a Steelers player who might emerge as a leader next season, since so much leadership was lost in the cuts made in February and March. I was planning to write a post about a dark-horse candidate, but decided in the end to look at the question of leadership more broadly.

Possibly the most famous “leader” currently on an NFL roster is Ray Lewis. Seeing him working the team up is standard TV fare for games between the Steelers and the Ravens, and presumably the Ravens and anyone else. When I took my Welsh son-in-law to Baltimore for the first game of last season, I was forced to watch this on the Jumbotron several times during the game. My son-in-law, who has played semi-professional hockey, was greatly impressed.

“That guy is fantastic!” he said with enormous enthusiasm. “That’s what the Steelers need. What’s wrong with them, anyhow?”

Fortunately for my son-in-law, I love him. Therefore I didn’t actually punch him out. Besides, a fight between a couple of Steeler fans would have looked bad, and I definitely would have lost. And truth to tell, we were all wondering what was wrong with the Steelers that day.

But was “leadership” like Ray Lewis’s what was missing? Is the measure of leadership how loud you yell and how much fuss you make?

I watched the latter part of the Baltimore-Jacksonville game last October, because I happened to go to NFL.com for a different purpose partway through the game, noticed the score, and couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw Ray Lewis doing his thing, and it didn’t appear to make much difference then.

The Jets locker room last season was said to have imploded. One of the men they elected as a captain, the late (un)lamented Steeler Santonio Holmes, supposedly quit on the team, and things went from bad to worse. Would the Jets have had major problems if they had won enough games to make the play-offs? That’s really hard to say. But very possibly not.

The real test of leadership is not when things are going well but when they are going poorly. Tempers flare, everyone is on edge, and things get said which are hard to overlook or retract. That is when it is easy to see whether the leaders are truly leaders or just the winners of a popularity contest.

Mike Tomlin considers his own style of leadership to derive from the Tony Dungy “servant leadership” tradition. What is that, exactly?

Here are some quotes from Dungy himself:

Positive, life-changing leadership is an acquired trait, learned from interaction with others who know how to lead and lead well.

Truly serving others requires putting ourselves and our desires aside while looking for ways and opportunities to do what is best of others.

Leaders that exemplify these traits might have most any “style” of leadership, from loud and mouthy like Ray Lewis to quiet and strong like James Farrior. The issue isn’t the delivery method but the message.

The last time I’ve heard of any problems in the Steelers’ locker room was during the 2009 season. Hines Ward made a remark to the press which appeared to question Ben’s toughness. This got blown up into a mini-crisis, at least among the press and the blogosphere.

This is not to say there weren’t actually some problems in the locker room. The above “incident,” if one should even validate it with that term, was between the two captains on the offense. So who was left to go between the two of them and make it right? Jeff Reed, Special Teams captain? Unfortunately, he was otherwise engaged, most likely with a towel dispenser. James Farrior may have intervened, but, more likely, Ben and Hines were sensible enough to deal with it and get back to work.

It was interesting to see what happened at the beginning of 2010. Ben’s off-season peccadillos created a big problem for the team, and many pundits predicted the Steelers would lose most or all of their first four games and be a non-factor in 2010. As we all know, the drama played out rather differently.

Yet it could so easily have gone south. I believe the reason it didn’t is because of both the leaders and the leaders-in-waiting in the locker room, if I can commandeer a Tomlinism.

Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger never appeared to have a particularly warm relationship. But Hines put any personal feelings behind him for the good of the team and walked onto the field next to Ben at the first public practice of training camp. To me, that’s leadership in a nutshell. A leader is willing to put aside his or her own personal feelings, agenda, and even comfort for the greater good.

So who like this is left on the team? Kevin Colbert was asked the same question when he addressed the media at the NFL Annual Meeting, and here’s what he said, courtesy of Steelers.com:

Is this team at a crossroads?

The biggest thing we lost from the terminations we had was leadership. That wasn’t disregarded when we made these decisions, but we had to make them. Leadership is an intangible that you cannot predict. I don’t know who will emerge as our leaders. It will be interesting to see whose team this becomes, because James Farrior was the team leader, not just the defensive leader. He was the guy. We will see who steps up. To me it’s wide open. It’s something you can never predict because you don’t know who is going to show up when it is required.

Do you have some guys who are already leaders?

I don’t know. We will find out. I can’t sit here today and say this is our leader. We are looking for that right now. That’s where the team is.

I’m not convinced Colbert was speaking with total candor. I imagine the staff has a pretty good idea who in the locker room has nascent leadership capabilities. But the staff doesn’t elect team captains, the players do, and I expect Colbert didn’t wish to even give the appearance of interfering with the natural process.

When I looked up who had been the captains for the past decade, something very interesting emerged. There is definitely a parallel between the present “leadership void” and the situation in 2001. To refresh your memory, here is the list, once again courtesy of Steelers.com:


Offense: Dermontti Dawon, C

Defense: Levon Kirkland, LB

Special Teams: Fred McAfee, RB


Offense: Dermontti Dawon, C

Defense: Levon Kirkland, LB; Chris Oldham, S

Special Teams: John Fiala, LB


Offense: Dermontti Dawon, C

Defense: Levon Kirkland, LB

Special Teams: John Fiala, LB


Offense: Jerome Bettis, RB

Defense: Jason Gildon, LB

Special Teams: John Fiala, LB


Offense: Jerome Bettis, RB

Defense: Jason Gildon, LB; Lee Flowers, SS

Special Teams: John Fiala, LB


Offense: Tommy Maddox, QB

Defense: Jason Gildon, LB; Joey Porter, LB

Special Teams: Clark Haggans, LB


Offense: Tommy Maddox, QB; Alan Faneca, G

Defense: James Farrior, LB; Joey Porter, LB

Special Teams: Chidi Iwuoma, CB; Clint Kriewaldt, LB


Offense: Alan Faneca, G; Hines Ward, WR

Defense: James Farrior, LB; Joey Porter, LB

Special Teams: Chidi Iwuoma, CB; Sean Morey, WR


Offense: Alan Faneca, G; Hines Ward, WR

Defense: James Farrior, LB; Joey Porter, LB

Special Teams: Clint Kriewaldt, LB; Sean Morey, WR


Offense: Hines Ward, WR

Defense: James Farrior, LB; James Harrison, LB

Special Teams: Clint Kriewaldt, LB


Offense: Ben Roethlisberger, QB; Hines Ward, WR

Defense: James Farrior, LB

Special Teams: Jeff Reed, K


Offense: Ben Roethlisberger, QB; Hines Ward, WR

Defense: James Farrior, LB; James Harrison, LB

Special Teams: Keyaron Fox, LB; Jeff Reed, K


Offense: Hines Ward, WR; Heath Miller, TE

Defense: James Farrior, LB

Special Teams: Keyaron Fox, LB


Offense: Ben Roethlisberger, QB; Hines Ward, WR

Defense: James Farrior, LB

Special Teams: Arnaz Battle, WR

Disregarding Special Teams, since they tend to be a revolving door, one can see it takes some time to be trusted with a leadership role on this team. This locker room expects you to prove yourself. Perhaps the Jets would have been well-served to take the same approach.

If we look at 2001 we see it represents a similar situation to the one the Steelers are presently in. The captains of the offense and defense since at least 1998 had been Dermontti Dawson and Levon Kirkland.

Dermontti Dawson was released by the team at the end of the 2000 season, partly because of injuries and partly because of salary cap difficulties. He chose to retire rather than try to play on another team. Kirkland was waived just prior to the 2001 season, again because of salary cap problems, and played for two more years, one on the Seahawks and one on the Eagles. He led the Seahawks with 100 tackles, and was a “veteran leader” [according to Wikipedia] on the Eagles. They advanced to the NFC Championship Game before losing to Tampa Bay. When the sole captains for both the offense and defense were cut, leaving a huge leadership void, Jerome Bettis and Jason Gildon stepped into their roles.

James Farrior earned his captaincy in 2004, two years after being signed by the Steelers. Hines Ward earned his the next year, seven years after being drafted by the Steelers. Both continued as captains until their release this year.

Although no one can say for sure who is going to fill the leadership roles this time around, it’s interesting to speculate. I have a feeling Ryan Clark may find the defensive mantle falling on his shoulders. He’s articulate, outspoken, and passionate, surely a good combination. He already calls the defense for the secondary, so he’s in a position of leadership in that sense. It would be a natural progression for him to step up.

On offense, it’s definitely Ben’s time to cement the entire offense as ‘his guys.’ He has always had a good relationship with the O-line, and made a concerted effort in the past year or two to reach out more to the defensive players he had previously more or less ignored. He is the oldest player now on the offense except for Jerricho Cotchery, assuming Cotch is re-signed.

But Ben has been pretty slow to demonstrate leadership in a way the other players responded to. Before he was elected a captain Ben was on the team for four full seasons, three seasons as the starter and one as the de facto starter. The captaincy, so long in coming, was taken away when he jeopardized the team by his actions. This says something about how the team views their captains. The title isn’t just something they hand to the obvious candidate.

In the meantime Ben appears to have grown up a great deal, both personally and in leadership terms. Watching him rally his dejected offense before the second half of the 2010 playoff game against the Ravens was really interesting. He refused to let the offense wallow in their earlier ineptitude, and basically willed them to go back on the field and play like they were capable of. Hopefully this means he is moving into truly being the leader of the offense, both as a player and a person.

But whatever happens, just as in 2001, when Dermontti Dawson and Levon Kirkland were cut, others will step up to take their places, both as players and as leaders. The team captain announcements will be more interesting and suspenseful this coming season than they have been for a long time. I’m looking forward to seeing which players will emerge as the new leadership of the Steelers.

Source: Behind the Steel Curtain

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