Training Camp for Fans Part Four: The Ahistorical Fan
by Ivan Cole
Is it possible to be a fan at all without a sense of history?
I was trying to make the case for the importance of history to a group of friends when one of them gave one of the more elegant explanations of history I have heard.
“Imagine,” he said, “you waking up one day with amnesia and having no memory of your life prior to the previous few days”.
You are in relationship with others, a spouse or friends, but you don’t really know why. You may have a job and appear to be competent at it, but don’t know what the attraction and satisfactions of that work may be. You live in one community, say Washington DC or Los Angeles or London, England, but you have a fanatical attachment to a sports team from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Why?
You could look at the present circumstances and hazard some guesses. But in an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation entitled “Conundrum” which laid out the problem brilliantly, you could easily come to some wrong conclusions. At the beginning of that episode, the Enterprise is hit with an energy beam that both wiped the memories of the crew and disabled the ship’s computers. Before the computer was restored the crew tried to reconstruct their lives based upon their analysis of their current circumstances. Captain Picard was reduced to a minor functionary while Lt Worf was assumed to be in command
Before I was ever much of a football fan, I, like many sports fans of my generation, heavily followed baseball. I knew as much as I could about the Pittsburgh Pirates, but also I could recite the lineups of every other team in the National League. I could also tell you about league and World Series winners going back decades as well as individual record holders and how current teams and players measured up to their athletic forbearers. The meaning of the events of the present could not be discerned without some reference to the norms and patterns of the past.
So, for example, how does one evaluate the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen? Currently, he is batting around .300. It is conceivable that an ahistorical fan would come to the conclusion that the team need to trade Cutch, because he fails seven out ten times he comes up to bat. Surely someone can be found who has a better success rate, say, five out of ten?
Even somewhat casual baseball fans understand the absurdity of what is being presented here. Over the past 75 years only one player was able to hit successfully four out of ten times over an entire season (Ted Williams). Those who can hit consistently in the .300s are viewed as being at the very top of their craft; All Star caliber if they do it over the course of a single season, Hall of Fame worthy if they can keep it uthroughout a career. But for someone unfamiliar with the standards of the game there might appear to be a certain logic to the notion that McCutchen is a failure.
This brings us to 8-8.
A few years ago I was in conversation online with a Steelers fan who contended, apparently with a straight face though I actually couldn’t see him of course, that it was reasonable to expect the Steelers to win the NFL Championship every year. Every. Single. Year. He seemed to be otherwise sane.
To be fair I can make a limited case for this person’s argument. I grew up near Pittsburgh’s Homewood district. Between 1946 to 1966 the Westinghouse High School Bulldogs under the leadership of Pete Dimperio had a league record of 118 victories against just five losses. They appeared in the Pittsburgh City Championship Game 21 years in a row. My freshman year, Dimperio’s final season, my Allderdice High football team’s consolation at the end of the season rally was to brag about the fact that our margin of defeat to the Bulldogs had been less than anyone else’s (We lost 36 – 12. Woo Hoo ! We defeated the Dimperio-less Bulldogs the following season in the City Championship game, an event that at the time was viewed as positively earth shattering).
One could make the further case that at the college level, over the years a number of programs such as Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Texas have enjoyed similar levels of dominance in their conferences. But this brings us back to a point I made in the first segment of this series about the myth of the knowledgeable fan, concerning the dangers in believing that phenomena which occur at the lower levels of the game are easily transferable to the NFL.
The league views dynasties as bad for business, a position that is difficult to argue against when viewed in this manner, and they have taken definitive and effective steps to prevent their prevalence. Everything from draft order to free agency, scheduling, salary caps and roster sizes are designed to strangle the fuel that leads to the creation of dynasties. Consequently, what passes for greatness (sustained excellence) is somewhat constrained. There will be no Westinghouse type teams in the NFL. On the other hand, and this is the really important part, what passes for futility is softened as well. Whatever scorn you want to heap upon teams like the Cleveland Browns or the Detroit Lions, they are not the Chicago Cubs*. They are not Rice University.
The concept of ‘on any given Sunday’ is not just pablum. The fans of the vast majority of the teams in the league are fully engaged at this time of the year, and will likely remain so until mid-September at worse. There will be no conversation in, for example, Miami, about how the Dolphins succumbed to the Patriots in a more respectable fashion than the Jets or the Bills. Even the Johnny-Come-Latelys to the league—Houston, Jacksonville, Carolina—have managed to make playoffs runs, with the Panthers making it all the way to the Super Bowl.
What this means on the other end of the scale is that there will not be any such thing as cakewalks year after year for the best team. It will, in fact, appear very much similar to that of the best baseball batting averages. The Steelers, who have been the best in the business during the Super Bowl era are doing well if they can manage, on average, one championship a decade. Everyone else does worse. Most do much worse.
So looking at things from what one might consider to be a clear eyed historical perspective, what might the term ‘The Standard is the Standard’ actually mean? It does not, I assure you, mean that the team better win the Super Bowl every year or else. A more accurate rendering would be that if we get it done once every 8-10 years we are the state of the art. And that my friends radically changes the argument in these parts, don’t you think?
A grounding in history changes the point of view on many topics. Homer J and I are old enough to remember when the state of the franchise was such that an 8-8 record was cause for celebration. Folks would have dancing on Liberty Avenue if the Steelers could have done that well in the pre-Noll days.
View the Cleveland Browns with contempt? If you take the long view you might want to hesitate before you make judgment based upon the current set of imposters who wear that uniform now. Truth be told if there was justice in this league the AFC North would be named the Brown Division. Three of the four teams (Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland) owe their very existence to legendary coach Paul Brown. And the fourth (Pittsburgh) owes a heavy debt to Browns (Chuck Noll a Cleveland native and Browns player; Bill Cowher played and coached in Cleveland) for their success. Cleveland in the late Forties, Fifties and early Sixties were the Steelers of their time, so to speak, and the competitive balance between the two teams was the reverse of what it has been in recent years. If you want to gain an understanding of the character and legacy of the Browns, you look to Baltimore, not Cleveland. That is where it resides today.
There have been some in Steelers Nation who have stewed over the hiring of Mike Tomlin, a relatively inexperienced coach before his arrival in Pittsburgh. Because Dan Rooney was the architect of the Rooney Rule, they reasoned, this was obviously (that’s a joke) an affirmative action (the term used as a pejorative) hire. But why was it that Rooney was tasked with the creation of that policy? Could it be that the Steelers were one of the few teams in professional sports that didn’t need a Rooney Rule? Pittsburgh was ahead of the curve in the hiring of blacks (first assistant coach) and women (first female trainer) before such practices were deemed fashionable or legally necessary. Anyone who knew the history of the family…but there’s the problem.
In a similar vein some of the controversy surrounding the Washington NFL franchise might be understood differently when viewed in a historical context. Ray Kemp, an African-American player with the Steelers in the 1930s, saw his NFL career came to an end because the owner of the Washington Redskins led the charge to purge black players from the league and impose a policy of racial segregation.
Paul Brown, [remember him?] led the charge to reintegrate football a year before Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Washington marketed themselves as the team of Dixie. In the old days a riff from the song ‘Dixie’ was included as part of Hail to the Redskins. Washington was the last league team to integrate, and only after the NFL held the proverbial gun to their head and they obtained Bobby Mitchell (from Cleveland). It was so bad that, as Homer I believe once pointed out, there are a huge segment of Cowboy fans, many black, who are from Washington DC. With that in mind, how do statements coming from the team stating their deep respect for other cultures resonate when defending the retention of the name ‘Redskins’?
Let’s talk quarterbacks for a moment. A couple of years ago some in Steelers Nation got it into their heads that Ben Roethlisberger was just about done. For the sake of brevity I won’t address that aspect of things at this time. These fans implied that all that was needed to be done was for us to mosey on down to the orchard. You know the one, where they grow franchise quarterbacks on trees? Pluck one, coach him up, and there you have it. I think that’s where we got Landry Jones.
And what might history say in this regard? First, that they do not grow on trees, rather they tend to be generational players, as in you are lucky if you get one in your lifetime. The Lions, just to cite one example, haven’t won a championship since the first Eisenhower Administration, and they are still in search of the next Bobby Layne. When you look at the common characteristics of the few dynastic franchises in the Super Bowl Era, a common denominator are multiple Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Staubach, Aikman (Cowboys), Montana, Young (49ers), Bradshaw, Roethlisberger. A coincidence perhaps? So you would think the consensus would be to ride Ben until the wheels come off because after him winter’s coming.
But let’s try something a little more current. How do you see the Super Bowl chances for the 2015 Steelers? Not so good huh? Why?
Here’s a team that followed an 8-8 season with an uneven division winning year with an early exit from the playoffs with a home loss. And then they have the toughest schedule in the league. When have we seen that before?
2015: It looks like the Steelers are going to struggle in the early portion of the season.
2008: First four games: Beat the Texans. [38-17] Just barely beat the Browns. [10-6] Lost to the Eagles in humiliating fashion. [6-15] Just barely beat the Ravens. [23-20])
2015: Our best offensive lineman is on IR. (Maurkice Pouncey)
2008: Our best offensive lineman is on IR. (Marvel Smith)
2015: One of our top receivers has issues and will miss the game against the defending Super Bowl Champions. (Martavis Bryant)
2008: One of our top receivers has issues and will miss the game against the defending Super Bowl Champions. (Santonio Holmes)
2015: We’ll miss our best running back for multiple games. (Le’Veon Bell)
2008: We’ll miss our best running back(s) for multiple games. (Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall)
2015: Our defense sucks!
2008: Our offense sucks!
Nothing new under the sun.
*Ironically, the Chicago Cubs currently have the fourth best record in Major League Baseball. Apparently even in baseball futility doesn’t last forever.