“Knowing” the Steelers—Fan Perceptions and Misconceptions
Back in 1994 I was talking with a colleague of my husband, a former Brit who taught at a university in Philadelphia and had long before embraced American sports. It was during the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and he made what I thought was a very curious statement. In effect, he said that through watching a player like Simpson, and particularly as he went on to a career as an NFL commentator, he felt as if he knew Simpson. Thus when the news hit the papers, he had a very hard time believing that the O.J. Simpson he “knew” could ever do anything like that.
Simpson was acquitted of the murder charge but is now serving a 33 year sentence, without parole, for numerous felonies stemming from a later incident.
And of course all of the information coming out about Peyton Manning is just the latest incident of someone not fitting comfortably anymore into the neat package he’s created, with his singing commercials, his Saturday Night Live appearances, and hanging out with everyone’s friend, Papa John.
But what actually prompted this article is something quite different. In fact, you might say it is almost the antithesis of “knowing” a player through their public persona.
A few months ago I reported something I heard on 93.7 The Fan, as follows:
One of the hosts of the 93.7 the Fan Morning Show, Colin Dunlap, said a couple of weeks ago, in regards to performance enhancing drugs, that he couldn’t care less about the players. The only thing he cared about was that he was entertained. As far as he was concerned, they should all be hopped up to the eyebrows with PEDs. He wasn’t in the least interested in what effects they might have in later years. I wonder how that attitude went down with one of his co-hosts, former Steelers punter Josh Miller.
This may or may not have sat well with Josh Miller, but it certainly didn’t sit well with either Ivan or me, and for a short time we used Dunlap’s name as a shorthand for the sort of fans who couldn’t care less about the welfare of the players.
So imagine my surprise when I followed a link from an email list to which I subscribe to find a moving and beautiful tribute to Ramon Foster, written by none other than Colin Dunlap. Here is a representative sample of the piece:
You meet some good people doing what I do.
You meet some bad people doing what I do.
You very seldom meet someone like Ramon Foster.
There is hyperbole, exaggeration and overstatement all the time in our business, but I can write this without the hint of any of that: Ramon Foster is one of the finest men I’ve met. He’s not one of the finest men I’ve met who plays football; he’s one of the finest men I’ve met. Period.
Great family man.
I don’t know the truest measure of measuring a great man, but I’ll give it a whirl with this: I’m still waiting for someone to say something negative about the guy.
After realizing, during a final radio segment with Foster, that this might be it, Dunlap goes on to elaborate just what he admires about Foster. Do click the link and read it, please. I’d like to encourage more of that sort of article.
As I pondered how the same person could make the sort of statement he did late last year, even if it was intended to be hyperbolic, and to write the piece he did about Foster, it seemed rather confounding, until I realized it was all about relationship. But not the sort of relationship we as fans can “have” with the players. No, this was a real friendship, forged over the radio segment they shared. And, not too surprisingly, Dunlap finds it harder to be objective over someone he’s grown to know and like:
Foster — a free agent now after making 87 career regular-season starts with the Steelers along the offensive line — was asked about the proposition of him staying here and getting another contract in Pittsburgh.
The answer wasn’t necessarily tinged with sunniness.
“I love being in Pittsburgh,” Foster said. “But, the situation, the business part of this sport…it can get kind of cringey with everything that goes into it.”
The business end of the sport, of all sports, can really suck sometimes…
Hopefully the offensive lineman and the Steelers can find a way to hammer out a new contract and he can remain here in Pittsburgh.
If the subject was a player in similar circumstances facing free agency who Dunlap hadn’t gotten to know, you can just about bet he would be talking blithely about how much cap space the Steelers could save by letting him go, and how (relatively, at least) easy it would be to replace said player in the draft, or by promoting his backup, or what have you.
Ramon Foster had become a real person to Colin Dunlap. As fans we don’t have that opportunity, typically. And as a sort of substitute, we turn the players into creatures of our (perhaps collective) imagination. Sometimes the work is done for us.
Back in 2011 I wrote a weekly article about Hines Ward’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars, comparing his performances, grades, and so on to those of Chad Ochocinco, née Johnson, who had appeared the previous season.
This is the only “reality” show I have ever watched. I don’t have a TV, for one thing. But I found myself getting sucked right in. I “saw” the funny and tender side of Hines. I wept over his partner’s injury, just as he did. It was all very well done. Hines may be just as nice and sunny and fun and caring as the excellent editing made him out to be. I couldn’t say. But I sure felt like I knew what he was like after watching the program.
But, just like my friend who was shocked by the real O.J. Simpson, I have no idea, really, who the real Hines Ward is, and there may be an unpleasant shock in store for me in the future. I hope not. But as the unfolding Peyton Manning story demonstrates, we’re all incredibly easily manipulated. And part of that is because of what we want to believe.
I admit to being guilty about making assumptions about players, for good or ill, and even using them as cautionary tales, whether that’s appropriate or not. Hopefully the cautionary tales are on other teams. One example I have used is Josh Gordon, who I suspect most of Steeler Nation is hoping is providing an object lesson for our own Martavis Bryant.
And yet, by doing so I’ve done something of a disservice to Gordon. I ran across a piece he wrote for Sports Illustrated which was an open letter to some of his critics:
Dear Sir Charles, Stephen A., Cris and other interested parties,
Thank you for your recent outpouring of concern about my well being. In what has been a difficult time for my family, friends and fans, you — and those like you — have taken it upon yourselves to express just how much you care about me and my future. For that, I am truly appreciative.
Chuck, you have never so much as shook my hand, let alone exchanged a single word with me. Few of you have, to be honest. Respectfully, your worry over my “problems” with substance abuse and my twisting descent into darkness and, apparently, my impending death, is misplaced — mostly because you have very little idea what you are talking about. None of you do, even those of you who seem curiously obsessed with the goings-on in my life. The thing is, you don’t even know me.
After expressing his regret that he let down the Browns organization and their fans, he talks about his upbringing, some of the poor choices he has made, and so on. It’s quite detailed, and even eloquent. He finishes with this:
What I do know is the following: I am not a drug addict; I am not an alcoholic; I am not someone who deserves to be dissected and analyzed like some tragic example of everything that can possibly go wrong for a professional athlete…I am a human being, with feelings and emotions and scars and flaws, just like anyone else. I make mistakes — I have made a lot of mistakes — but I am a good person, and I will persevere.
If I have a “problem,” it is that I am only 23 years old — with a lot left to learn. I’ve come a long way from those mean Fondren streets, but it’s clear that I can be a better me — one who kids coming up to me for selfies and autographs can be proud of. I want that future for myself. And I truly believe that what I am going through right now will only make me stronger. I believe that my future is bright.
If you see me someday, Chuck, Stephen A., Cris, or any other well-intentioned person to whom this letter is directed, please come on over, shake my hand, and say hello. I won’t be holding a grudge, but I will expect you to admit you were wrong about me.
Josh Gordon, No. 12
And in the end, that’s what it boils down to—we don’t know these people. We’re generally not aware of their fears, their foibles, their failures. We hope to share in their triumphs in some small way, and those of us with more tender hearts are pulling for them when they are visibly struggling—at least those on our own team. And as Ivan so feelingly wrote on Wednesday, for many of us that sense of relationship is what makes us a fan in the first place, and makes us continue to be fans.
We shouldn’t allow this to blind us to the fact that these guys are much, much more, and more complex, than their public persona. I very much enjoy writing pieces about individual players I believe are worthy people, but in the end I can only base my conclusions on their public words, actions, and attitudes. What goes on in their private lives and private hearts is opaque to the rest of the world, other than the few who know them well.
Granting them human dignity consists both in seeing them as real people and acknowledging there is much we can never know about them. As Josh Gordon would say, you don’t know me.