Steelers Training Camp for Fans, Part Two: The Traps

A monumental man-cave

A monumental man-cave

by Ivan Cole

[ n.b. We assume without question that preseason training for players is absolutely essential to any hope for team success. Why not apply the same logic to fans? Parts One and Two of the series gives one person’s take on how fans can understand and enhance their appreciation of the game. Part Three will explain why there is never likely to be a perfect draft, and Part Four speaks to the dangers of ahistorical fandom.]

Allies

The cruel irony of our situation is that in the midst of an incredible abundance of informational possibilities our ability to benefit has become increasingly more limited. Whether you would place the blame on the failures of an educational system producing citizens that lack perspective and understanding of their social environment, the lack of ability to think in a critical fashion, or a television based culture that creates short attention spans and celebrates the superficial and the trivial (including an outsized emphasis on the importance of sports over other concerns), increasingly for many of us it is as though we sit at a full banquet table, starving because we lack hands and a mouth.

I always believed that three elements were necessary to make a good argument or to be a competent debater. You first had to possess a mastery of at least minimum amount of information and facts. Next, you need experience, first hand or not, with the subject matter. Call it wisdom if you like. And then, for lack of a better term, there is attitude; a flair, a measure of confidence or theatrics, such as humor for example, which has been marshaled in the service of making the case for your point of view. The problem for some is, their handle on the facts is limited at best. Worse still, and pretty amazing in a nauseating way, some don’t actually know the difference between a fact and an opinion. Ahistorical and with painfully short attention spans, experience is unavailable or ignored. What’s left?

Attitude

There is a word for attitude that exists in a vacuum separate from facts and experience. That would be bullshit. The greater reliance on attitude also explains, at least in part, the disrespectful and negative tone of much of our sports conversation. Lacking the proper grounding to effectively attack the other person’s arguments, what’s left? You attack the person with the thought that discrediting the individual invalidates the argument. If you are a ‘negative nelly’, ‘homer,’ ‘pollyanna’, ‘fool’ or ‘idiot’ then your thoughts and opinions can be simply dismissed.

Now if we were just speaking about some lower strata of the social order that would be one thing. But have you really been paying attention to what friends of mine contemptuously label as suburban sports talk radio? This is where fans go to learn be dumb. All attitude all the time. A mecca for the marginal.

Social media can be a culprit as well. Half-baked notions that would never resonate beyond the confines of the local tavern or barbershop now have a platform that is potentially global in reach, and anonymity provides inviting cover for ill-considered remarks, slander, trolling and bullying.

The mantle of being ‘knowledgeable’.

This may be the hardest hurdle to clear, and is a particularly challenging trap for Steelers fans. Western Pennsylvanians and Steelers fans in particular are supposed to be knowledgeable about football. I remember a friend of mine revealing to me that he was dating a woman from Pittsburgh. I told him he better know his football because Pittsburgh women aren’t the ‘He kicked a touchdown’ type.

Being knowledgeable is set up as a measure of authenticity, of being a ‘true’ bleed black and gold Steelers fan, and, more broadly, the measure of being a man, period. There are two likely reactions to this—either the assumption that one is innately knowledgeable or a desperate, probably subconscious need to fake it. Overreaching in all of its manifestations becomes the norm. Some fans become intellectually lazy. What does a know-it-all need to learn? Others become insufferably arrogant, others still hyper sensitive and combative.

Gender gap?

I believe there is one, with the advantage going to females. Those three words ‘I don’t know’ are not necessarily a sign of weakness, but a launch point for acquiring more knowledge and understanding, unless…you have been encouraged to believe that your status as man is placed into question if you acknowledge uncertainty or ignorance. Women aren’t saddled with that kind of nonsense and, therefore, have the freedom to grow their knowledge without having to entertain the threat of being judged inadequate.

Fire everyone

So let’s see how this plays out with an example. For two years a small number of disgruntled fans engaged in a tail-wagging-the-dog exercise demanding that members of organizational leadership be fired for the team’s struggles during the 2011 through 2013 seasons. A number of people were in the cross hairs, including General Manager Kevin Colbert and coordinators Todd Haley and Dick LeBeau, but for present purposes let’s concentrate the focus on Head Coach Mike Tomlin. (After all, and the team just extended his contract.)

One factor that makes this example particularly instructive is that it involves an aspect of the game that is pretty low information. Evaluating the effectiveness of coaching at the professional level requires drawing conclusions concerning processes that the media and general public cannot observe. In this context outcomes could result from a variety of possible causes, in all sorts of combinations. Consequently, this becomes an inkblot test for many of us; our conclusions are more a reflection of our beliefs than ‘reality’. Take winning, for instance. Sometimes teams win because of coaching, sometimes in spite of coaching, sometimes coaching is irrelevant.

When teams are winning consistently, or not, even as the cast of players is constantly changing or evolving, then coaching probably plays a significant role. Which is why Tomlin’s run of no losing seasons is so noteworthy. But to say that losing always reflects on the coaching is like saying that every time a student fails an exam it’s the teacher’s fault. Ultimately, the players win or lose games. As James Harrison noted earlier this spring when asked about what would result from the young Steelers linebackers joining him in Arizona for workouts, “I’m just leading them to the water; it’s up to them to drink.”

Those who became to be known as the ‘fire everyone crowd’ were infuriating to what we now know was probably the vast majority of the Steelers fan base. Imagine you are sitting in your favorite restaurant and one of the other patrons begins to complain about his meal. He demands to speak to management and declares loudly so that everyone in the establishment can hear that the food is terrible and that the head chef should be fired. Well, you don’t agree. If you did it wouldn’t be your favorite restaurant, but you compassionately acknowledge that everyone is entitled to their opinion and you let it go at that.

The next day the same customer returns, orders food, and again complains and demands that the chef be fired. He returns again, armed with a petition this time demanding that you join in his calls for the termination of the chef and declaring you a fool for refusing to do so. The one effective thing he could do if he wanted to facilitate change, vote with his feet and his wallet and not patronize the establishment, is out of the question. So, in the best middle schoolyard tradition he attempts to bully others into joining his campaign, declaring that ‘everyone knows that the food here is terrible’. A few of the weak minded join him. Most don’t, but they don’t openly oppose him either. They came to the restaurant to have a nice meal with other likeminded folks, not get into a fight. Others, upset and disgusted, actually stop coming. Finally the other patrons start to push back, but the agenda and tone of the experience has been changed and controlled by a vocal and aggressive minority.

Battles are won or lost based upon the ‘ground’ upon which they are fought. Coaching and front office issues are great ground for those who are coming from an attitude based stance. In a situation that is so information poor it isn’t that difficult to go far with an argument whose basic defense is ‘because I said so’. It’s likely that both supporters and detractors of Tomlin have based their positions on concepts concerning the authority conferred to head coaches that doesn’t necessarily translate to the professional level and certainly to that of the system that is in place in Pittsburgh.

“(A) Steelers head coach is not a dictator.”

This, from Steelers.com writer Bob Labriola, probably comes as a surprise for those whose assumptions are based upon what occurs at the lower levels of the game through college. It would make sense for a grown man to lord it over a bunch of adolescent boys. A college head coach, particularly of some of the big time programs, could be mistaken for a potentate. They have total control over their staffs and the players they select. They may only be answerable to small number of extremely influential boosters and can thereby be held thoroughly accountable for the performance of their teams.

An NFL coach with that kind of power would be rare. Beholden to owners and general managers, it is possible for a pro coach to be effectively fired by a powerful player such as a franchise quarterback.

As I understand it, the Pittsburgh system has a number of people giving input. And they are not trivial. The most recent example would be that the person most responsible for the decision to draft Ben Roethlisberger during former head coach Bill Cowher’s tenure was not Kevin Colbert or Cowher but owner Dan Rooney. In the seventies Art Rooney Jr. and Nunn probably had as much to do with Franco Harris and Lynn Swann coming to the Steelers as anyone.

Perhaps this, as much as anything explains how the team has experienced so much success selecting young coaches who have been consistently successful over time. (Chuck Noll, Cowher and Tomlin were all in their 30s when they were hired.) The price these men have paid is a lack of total control. Nunn remarked to me that he wasn’t sure whether Noll had the power to either hire or fire him. At the time I thought he was exaggerating.

This gives a greater context to the remarks that Tomlin made during the award ceremony in the wake of the Steelers’ victory in Super Bowl 43. When asked by Dan Patrick about his youth and relative inexperience, Tomlin cited his having faith in “the process” put in place by the Rooneys.

The case made in the Labriola piece is that Tomlin’s genius may be his ability to succeed within the limitations of a system not of his making, with players he did not select, a staff he largely did not hire, operating a scheme that was not his own, nor with which he was most familiar. That is changing, of course, and we must wonder what may be possible now that he has nearly a decade of head coaching experience, players and staff and schemes more in line with his preferences, and co-decision makers who are clearly satisfied with his work.

Tomlin, like Colbert, is paid to be accountable, but as a practical matter would the removal of either (assuming of course you would still buy into the notion that the team is flawed to the point that some kind of dramatic change is necessary) make an appreciable difference beyond whatever satisfactions come from the sacrifice of a scapegoat? Regardless of the thinking on this point, do not be deceived, there are those who would still insist that Tomlin and others be replaced. And that is because for some disapproval is not based on practical or rational considerations. And because of that you can be certain that in spite of it all, the record, the extension, whatever, that we are one upset loss, one early playoff exit, maybe even a lackluster preseason performance from a reemergence of those cries.

If confronted, the easy explanation will be that everyone is entitled to their opinion, which is certainly true on the face of things. But if you swear that your hemoglobin is not red, but in fact black and gold, and you make claim that you are a member in good standing of a fan base that prides itself on being knowledgeable, is it too much to ask that the opinion be an informed one?

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