Steeler Nation and The Standard of Expectation
by Rebecca Rollett
Long ago, in a galaxy far away (or at least 2011 seems like that at times) I wrote an article about then-rookie running back Baron Batch after he tore his ACL in a “meaningless preseason game” and was out for the season. I ran across it a few days ago when looking for something else, and it contains some thoughts which are perhaps worth re-examining.
This week the Steelers signed free-agent quarterback Michael Vick. I think it is safe to say that seldom have so many tweets gone forth, so many teeth been gnashed, and so many statements made which may perhaps later be regretted over the signing of a 35-year old back-up quarterback.
So what on earth do these two things have to do with one another? I may be wrong, but I think the reactions to these two otherwise entirely unrelated things tell us something about ourselves, if we’re only willing to look.
“The Standard is the Standard.” How many times have we heard this said, seen it written? And what standard are we talking about, anyhow? The typical place this phrase is employed is in regards to the loss of a player. It is often followed by something having to do with the “next man up.” In other words, the coaching staff has a level of expectation for how well the team performs, and the assumption is, whoever you put into the vacated spot is expected to fulfill the obligations of the position in the same manner as the player before him.
But these expectations aren’t confined to the coaching staff. The fan base has a certain level of expectation for the team’s performance. As far as I can tell, it is the same as that expressed by head coach Mike Tomlin—that anything less than winning a Lombardi Trophy makes the season a disappointment.
Coming from Mike Tomlin, it makes sense, because if you can’t look your players in the eye and say you expect them to contend for the top prize in the league, what does that say about your coaching? And why even run them out on the field?
But for this to be an expectation from the fan base is ludicrous. Hope for, dream about, fine. Expect? Not so much. There are 31 other teams, all stocked with the cream of the college football crop, all presumably stating the goal of winning the Super Bowl.
There are a multitude of things which can derail these aspirations, beginning with the inevitable injuries. Mark Kaboly of the Tribune-Review just tweeted that in 25 days of camp 11 players have been put on either Waived/Injured or Reserve/Injured designation. That’s a LOT of attrition.
It takes a combination of skill, dedication, excellent coaching, and yes, a considerable helping of good fortune to even make it to the big game, much less win it.
But let’s examine first the idea of “The Standard is the Standard” in terms of player replacements. The article I wrote in 2011 was in response to an article titled “Rookie Baron Batch Out for the Year, But Who Cares?” It created a bit of a tempest at the time from a certain portion of the fan base of which I am a part. As I said at the time:
When a player like Baron Batch comes along, those of us who are drawn to the human element immediately take note. If he is drafted late, so much the better. If he does well in camp, we rush to crown him the Second Coming of, say, Brett Keisel, another 7th-round pick.
When such a player is injured, a lot more rides on it than just the need for a third running back.
Here’s the flip side: Paul Alexander, assistant head coach for the Bengals, published a book several years ago called “Perform.” As he said:
At the beginning of each season, I share a dose of reality with my players: ‘My job is to replace each of you with someone better…The sooner a performer understands that the coach loves him, but will replace him the moment he finds someone more talented, the better off he is.
Coaches have to live that way. They continually look to improve their team, even as they lose players to injuries and the wear and tear imposed by the nature of football.
But even in their world, people aren’t interchangeable. The reason Player B isn’t the starter is that the coaching staff deemed him not as fit for the position as Player A. Player B presumably had the benefit of the same coaching and practices as Player A, although probably for considerably less time. But he isn’t Player A. He can’t rationally be expected to perform as well, especially not at first.
In the crucible of game experience Player B will almost certainly improve to some extent. There are even dramatic instances such as James Harrison’s debut game in Joey Porter’s absence. But it is also possible Player B will never get it. Player B might be a fine backup, but not have the constitution or present experience or even the talent to be the starter. In that case, it’s back to the drawing board.
“The Standard is the Standard” creates cognitive dissonance. We know deep down in our hearts it isn’t true. People aren’t the same, and you can’t expect them to be interchangeable widgets which work just the same whichever one you plug in. But we accept it because we want our team to win. No, actually—we insist on it.
Which is what makes the tremendous fuss over Michael Vick all the odder, because if winning is the only aim, the fuss should be about whether Vick makes the team better, not about his past. But part of the cognitive dissonance, I believe, is that many of us want to like and even admire our players. There are plenty of exceptions, like the writer of the Baron Batch article, who don’t really care, but a great many of us, even the guys, are romantics at heart.
Before I go any further, let’s get this out of the way. I love animals. I think it is despicable to torture them. I think Vick deserved every single moment of the sentence he served in federal prison. But who of us can truly look into our own hearts and not see the same capabilities there?
Oh, maybe not that sort. Maybe you’ve never acted on the things going on in there. But if you had too much money, too much adulation, too much opportunity, and too many friends of the wrong sort as a very young adult, can you really say for sure what you would or wouldn’t do?
There was a famous experiment conducted at Stanford University in 1971 in which the experimental subjects were randomly divided into prisoners and prison guards and put into a “prison” environment built in a basement for the purpose. The study was supposed to go on for a couple of weeks, but because of what was happening the professors running the study called it off after six days.
Over the course of six days several of the quite ordinary young men who were designated as guards had become sadistic. Some of the “prisoners” were showing signs of mental illness. All the young men had received psychological screening and were deemed to be “normal.” None of them were under the influence of drugs.
You can read a summary of the study, with photos, here —it’s both fascinating and repelling.
One of the most interesting aspects of the study is not what happened to the students but what happened in the feelings and attitudes of the professors who led the study. The lead professor ended with this:
On the last day, we held a series of encounter sessions, first with all the guards, then with all the prisoners (including those who had been released earlier), and finally with the guards, prisoners, and staff together. We did this in order to get everyone’s feelings out in the open, to recount what we had observed in each other and ourselves, and to share our experiences, which to each of us had been quite profound.
We also tried to make this a time for moral reeducation by discussing the conflicts posed by this simulation and our behavior. For example, we reviewed the moral alternatives that had been available to us, so that we would be better equipped to behave morally in future real-life situations, avoiding or opposing situations that might transform ordinary individuals into willing perpetrators or victims of evil.
The professor who wrote the words “a time for moral reeducation” was talking not just about the study participants but the study leaders. These leaders were professors of psychology. Yet they found themselves, over the course of a few days, acting in ways that seemed rational at the time but which they saw in retrospect were only rational within the artificial constraints they had created, and which they were supposedly outside.
The consultants they hired were not immune, either. An ex-prisoner hired as a consultant found himself behaving, as head of the “parole board,” exactly in the ways he had so deplored during his numerous parole hearings.
Am I implying that Vick, or any of us for that matter, are not morally free agents? By no means. But differing circumstances, backgrounds, and situations may make some of us less free than others, if you will.
And Vick doesn’t ask to be exonerated. He admitted that what he did was appalling, served his time, and has spent the last ten years trying to make some sort of amends by his involvement with the very sorts of organizations he no doubt derided during his dogfighting days.
There’s another issue many of us want to overlook, which is football is a violent game played by angry men. This is in fact what attracts a lot of the fans to the game. There are plenty of players who are model citizens off the field, but is it a surprise that so many of them aren’t?
As fans we want to have our cake and eat it too, but that “nastiness” we want to see in our players isn’t, perhaps, all that easy to leave behind in the stadium for many of them—players with abusive backgrounds, for instance. Or players whose fathers left them and their siblings and their mother to manage as best they could. Or just ordinary young men who haven’t had to exercise a great deal of self-restraint.
An interesting case of this is the above-mentioned Baron Batch. Here is an incredibly long extract from a column he wrote for a Lubbock, Texas newspaper while flying to Pittsburgh to meet with the Steelers for his pre-draft visit.
Although this extract is long, the original is a lot longer. It isn’t in the usual quote format, because it freaks out my browser. Baron’s words are in italics.
I really recommend you read the original, which you can find here. I left out a lot which give you even more insight.
This column isn’t for reader satisfaction, as strange as that sounds. This column is more like therapy for me. I am writing this column in response to an email I just read:
Thank you for taking the time to read this email. I have a few questions and am asking for advice. How have you become so successful? How have you achieved what you have? I envy you, but you are also my hero. My family doesn’t have much. I don’t have the perfect life and the talents or skills that you have. I feel like the world is against me sometimes. My parents are divorced and my mom is sick. I have brothers and a sister that I have to take care of like I am a parent. I don’t think it’s fair. I feel like I will rot in the town that I’m in. I feel like there is no way out. I feel like my life isn’t that important. Can you please email me back because that would be so cool! I would like to hear any advice that you could give. Thanks for reading this.
This is a story I have trouble telling, and honestly really don’t like to. I guess one reason I have avoided this story for so long is because I have never wanted people to pity me…
I don’t like to think about my childhood much. My memory is like a puzzle with missing pieces. I guess a psychologist would say I have suppressed memories or something like that, which could be true. I’ve never really tried writing all my memories down until now… I was born in Odessa on Dec. 21, 1987…I grew up in a large family with three brothers and a sister. From oldest to youngest this is how it goes: Bridgette, Brian, Baron, Brandon, and Bryson. Yes, I am the middle child.
I learned several things being the middle child. Mainly I learned to fight. I liked it and was good at it. Of course you can’t enjoy fighting without getting beat up a few times. I never thought there was a fight I wouldn’t win. I guess in many ways that mentality has made me who I am and is still with me. I was a temperamental child. My mom was the only person who could calm me down once my temper ran away with me attached to it…
My family lived in a trailer house. We had what we needed to survive but not much else. The word poor doesn’t suffice. My mom loved to garden—Looking back I realize my mom gardened not only as a hobby, but to provide food for us.
I can recall the day I realized my family was poor. I was in third grade and was invited to a friend’s birthday party. I remember pulling up to his house and looking at it in awe thinking, “My house looks nothing like that.” After that I was always embarrassed to have friends over to my home because I didn’t want them to see how my family lived. I guess I was embarrassed of my family in a way. I would let my fists defend me when other kids made fun of my clothes, shoes, or the awful haircuts my brother Brian would give me.
I spent the majority of my childhood sleeping on the floor in front of a space heater. Looking back I realize how dangerous that probably was, but safety doesn’t matter much when you are cold…
My dad’s job required him to travel for weeks at a time. I can only imagine how hard it was for my mom to keep track of all of us by herself…Eventually my dad met another woman during one of his trips and left my mom. Shortly after, my mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Years passed, and my parents fought. While my mom’s disease progressed, my dad commuted between his two lives.
Mom’s disease worsened and she lost basic skills like the use of her hands and eventually the ability to walk. My siblings and I had to take care of each other, and Mom. We were forced to accept roles my dad wasn’t around to do and my mom was unable to do. We learned to cook, do laundry, and even woke ourselves up for school and caught the bus in the mornings…
[E]ventually Mom had to go live in a nursing home in Crane, away from my siblings and me. I went from seeing my mom every day and hearing her sing, to seeing her once every few weeks. It was strange to see every other kid’s parents at their school functions, knowing that mine could never be there. I remember lying to my friends when they asked why my parents were never present.
I was constantly angry at my situation. I didn’t think it was fair. My dad was still away on work quite often and busy juggling two lives; this left my siblings and me home alone to raise ourselves. We were our own parents…
Mom’s health began to decrease drastically. She regularly had to be hospitalized.
On April 13, 2003, my mom was admitted to Medical Center Hospital. I remember arriving at the hospital and having a gut feeling she wouldn’t bounce back like she did many times before. That afternoon Joyce Ann Batch went to be with Jesus. At the time I didn’t see it like that.
I felt like my mom had been stolen from me. I got there too late to say goodbye. My uncle told me I needed to go see her for closure, but I remember being too scared. I didn’t want to see her. My uncle tried to hug me and I pushed him away and ran. The hospital hallway was long and I had no idea where I was running; all I knew was that I wanted to get away. I thought if I ran far enough maybe everything would go away. It didn’t.
That night I cried until I vomited and passed out.
Mom’s death affected all my siblings differently. I became angrier than I already was, and it didn’t help that the only person who could calm me was gone. At the funeral I remember feeling anger instead of grief.
Time passed and my anger grew. I remember my dad telling me he was going to marry the woman whom he left my mother for. I never had raised my voice to my father but that night I yelled at him. He wanted my siblings and I to move to another city with him, but I refused. I didn’t want to leave the only stable thing I still had: my friends. I had been living with my best friend when football season came around because that was the only way I could get back and forth to practice on a consistent basis. Instead of moving away from Midland, they took me in. They will never understand how grateful I still am…
I continued to excel in football throughout high school. Football was the only thing that made me feel important and secure because I felt like I was in control when I was on the field. I fell in love with the game because of that feeling. It filled the void that my mom’s death left. It also helped to have a position coach who served as a father figure to me, and still does.
I began to get scholarship offers my junior year. I decided to stay close to home and attend Texas Tech University. Upon arriving on campus I quickly impressed the coaches and earned playing time my freshman year. My anger hadn’t gone anywhere; I actually felt like it helped me play better at times. The only important, constant, or stable thing to me at that time was football.
After playing seven games as a true freshman, I broke my ankle and had surgery. I ended up getting a very serious bone infection after my operation. Suddenly my season-ending injury turned into a potentially career-ending injury and possible life-threatening situation. I remember having a central line put into my chest and having to run I.V. antibiotics twice a day for two hours, for weeks on end. I didn’t think I would ever play a snap of football again.
I remember being too sick to fly with the team to the bowl game that year, so I went to Odessa to stay with my aunt and uncle. One afternoon while I was laying on the couch during a two-hour antibiotic session, I looked up to my uncle and said, “There is a good chance that I will never play football again.”
He looked at me and said, “Yeah, there is a good chance of that, but it will be OK. Have faith.”
That is the moment I let go of all the anger I had been carrying. I was finally free. I was finally able to let go and forgive. I was able to heal.
The rest of the story is what mostly everyone already knows. I guess everything after that point is what you could call my comeback from my injury. But there was no real comeback. My injury simply closed a chapter on a life that most people never knew existed.
Tomorrow the poor angry kid with the horrible haircuts will meet with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The NFL draft is in three weeks. Over the past month, several NFL organizations have flown me in for interviews. It is all very surreal. After looking back on my childhood, I realize how fortunate I am.
Whether I play a down in the NFL or not, I am proud to say I am very much OK without football. Funny thing is, as much as I hated my childhood and thought it was unfair, I wouldn’t change one single event. I actually appreciate my childhood now more than ever.
To the young man who wrote me that email that sparked this entire story: You speak for a demographic of young people who are struggling and hurting just like I was, and this is what I have to tell you:
You don’t have to become a victim to your situation. You can overcome it. Problems don’t exist, only obstacles, so hurdle them. This is what makes you strong. You will fall, and when you do, get up because the world is still turning. Don’t lie on the ground because few sincere hands will be extended.
However, once a sincere and trusted hand is offered, quickly grab it and never let go, because you can’t do it on your own. When you overcome your situation, never be ashamed to talk about it like I have been until now, but never use it as an excuse or crutch. Others need to hear that there is hope for people like us. I know what you are going through. Have faith. Everything will be OK. I’m flattered that I’m your hero, but please understand this one thing. I’m not just kind of like you.
I am you. God Bless.
This is a beautiful piece of writing from an extraordinary young man. I have grown to know and love Baron in his post-football life, and he will tell you the anger is still part of him. It just doesn’t define him anymore.
Not everyone who comes through such circumstances is so successful at dealing with them. Not everyone has Baron’s resilience and his determination and his generosity of spirit. There are a lot of NFL players who have similar backgrounds but a much different outcome. We read about them on a regular basis.
So what about Michael Vick? He too had a difficult childhood, although not perhaps as bad as Baron’s. But dogfighting was cultural in his youth. Again, this doesn’t excuse it. His adversity was of his own making. But he appears to have owned it and has tried to atone for it.
Has he really changed? On one level, we’ll never know. Who can really know the heart of another? We barely even know our own hearts. But we can judge by the actions of others. Judy Battista of NFL.com wrote a piece on Vick last year, and she had some really interesting things to say about Vick’s time in Philadelphia:
President Barack Obama did not call the Eagles to congratulate them for merely signing a signal-caller; he called because Vick had become a symbol of a person in desperate need of a second chance.
In that respect, it worked: Vick was a joy to have around. [Eagles owner Jeffry] Lurie has remarked, and the quarterback repaid the Eagles this season for the risk they took with him…
It happened long before Vick and Foles stood shoulder to shoulder at a joint October press conference — unheard of in a scenario where the two participants are competing for one job. That piece of theater merely underscored what people around the Eagles had been saying for a while: Vick had become an important locker room presence, a mature, steady mentor whose support of and friendship with Foles was unfailing, even as it became obvious that Foles was taking Vick’s job for good…
On the summer day when Vick was reintroduced to the NFL, Lurie spoke in harsh, blunt language to express his disgust at the crimes Vick had committed, and about the disgrace he had brought upon the NFL. A small clutch of protestors stood outside the gates of the Eagles’ facility and local sports radio was awash in often-heated reactions from fans.
[Head coach Andy] Reid, though, said then he was moved by the second chances offered to his own troubled sons.
“There is no room for error,” Lurie said that day. “There is no third chance. If it isn’t fulfilled the way we expect it to be, that will be the end.”
The end has come in Philadelphia. But there was no error. Not in the motivation of the Eagles or in the completion by Vick. And Vick will get his third chance, after all.
“The Standard is the Standard.” As fans we insist the Steelers take on fierce football players who will “leave it all on the field” and win us championships. And oh, by the way, they had better be exemplary people, at least in areas we care about.
To return to my earlier quote about Baron Batch, “When such a player is injured, a lot more rides on it than just the need for a third running back.”
And what exactly “rides on it?” Us. Our need to identify with our team, for their triumphs to be ours, for the victory for the little guy. Way too many of us entwine our sense of self-worth with the players on our team, and therefore we can’t tolerate anything in them we don’t like.
Because we ourselves are perfect. We have never screwed up. We have never harmed another living being, except maybe flies and mosquitos, which don’t count, because we don’t like them.
In some places they eat dogs. Those places include Pittsburgh, where I’m told you can buy dog meat if you know where to shop.
We’re really good at putting things into boxes and only thinking about the things we want to. We don’t care (or don’t want to know, which comes to the same thing) that there are parents pimping their children on the internet, because we want free speech and an open internet and all that. We don’t want to pay more for our produce, despite the fact the agricultural workers picking it barely make enough to live on, much less better themselves. Some of them are essentially (or even literally) slaves, but that isn’t our problem. If they don’t like it they can go back to wherever they came from and not bother us.
The list goes on and on. We all have an unsettlingly large capacity for evil, although most of us manage to suppress the socially unacceptable types and consider ourselves civilized. We also have the capacity to forgive, and the responsibility to do so, unless we’ve never done anything which would require the forgiveness of others. And before you assume you are one of those people who don’t require it, you might want to ask your wife or husband or children or co-workers. They might have a somewhat different view of the matter.
Of course, if you still think that Vick can never make up for what he did, no matter what he does, no amount of words will bludgeon you into submission, so I’m signing off. But if you’ve had the persistence to make it through this article, you might consider having a peek into your own heart. Perhaps there you will find the source of some of that cognitive dissonance.
And with this I promise not to write any more about Michael Vick. Tomorrow’s article will be about roster cuts, although at the rate things are going, what with injuries and suspensions and so on, they might not be necessary this season…