The Trouble With Truth: A Dramatic Presentation by the Pittsburgh Steelers
Photo via Steelers.com
So far the theme of this season seems to be “just one big drama after another.” We had “The Return of the Prodigals” in Week 1, “The Underwhelmingness of the Prodigals” in Week 2, “Insulting the Flag, Mother, and Apple Pie, Except for One Heroic Holdout” in Week 3, “Those Selfish Divas Who Only Care About Their Stats” in Week 4, and in Week 5, “Ben Throws Himself Under the Bus.”
Next week will undoubtedly be equally dramatic, although we don’t know whether it is going to be “The Steelers Finally Put It All Together and Beat the NFL’s Only Undefeated Team” or “Old, Slow, and Done—The Ben Roethlisberger Story.” Or perhaps something else it’s difficult to imagine at the moment.
So what’s the genesis of all these dramas? On one level, it is the usual human need to put what we see into a narrative.
Antonio Brown disses his coach and throws a Gatorade cooler. So what do we hear all week? Reports about how his winning smile and seemingly engaging persona hides a massive, towering ego which is ultimately only focused on himself. The more thoughtful and compassionate commentators note his background—how he was asked to leave his home at age 16 because mom’s new husband didn’t want him around, and how this would tend to produce a feeling of “I’ve gotta take care of me.” Which he did.
The less compassionate ones either take the “get off my lawn” attitude that these young people nowadays are so selfish and only care about themselves, or that AB in particular is narcissistic and not a “team player.”
But does anyone ever consider that we create these players, in a sense, and then despise them for becoming what we made them? We’re like toddlers making towers of blocks just for the pleasure of destroying them. And while I can scarcely blame fantasy football for the less pleasant aspects of human nature, it sure does seem to bring them out.
I recently heard an exchange between the hosts of a local sports radio show and their young producer, who is apparently a fantasy football addict. (They used the word “addict” and he didn’t disagree.) He plays in five leagues, and admitted to the show hosts that his fantasy teams trump any sort of local loyalties. They asked if there was a game between the Steelers and, say, the Washington team, and he had Kirk Cousins on his fantasy team, and the game was to determine whether the Steelers made the playoffs, would he still be rooting for Cousins, and the unsurprising answer was yes, screw the Steeers (in effect.)
What struck me so forcibly was not that he felt this way, but that he felt no shame whatsoever in feeling this way, on a program dedicated to talking about the Steelers. Is he, furthermore, the sort of fantasy football guy who would tweet Cousins after the game, should Cousins not come through for him, and reprimand him?
I used the word “reprimand” because I’m an old-fashioned sort, a lover of British 18th and 19th century novels, and that’s the sort of word I like. But actually “reprimand” isn’t an appropriate word for the profanity-laced and personally derogatory tweets some of these guys send out. (And maybe “gals” too, but the whole fantasy culture is more of a guy thing, as far as I can see.)
So if you’re Antonio Brown, and you see an opportunity for a touchdown on a day that hasn’t gone very well for you, and it might not only pad your stats and keep people talking about you as the best receiver in the league but prevent some of those profanity-laced tweets, then yeah, you’re going to be, to use Brown’s word, “frustrated.” But let’s move on.
I could say (but won’t) a good deal about the anthem controversy and Le’Veon Bell’s non-appearance and Martavis Bryant’s self-imposed exile. Instead let’s look at the latest flurry over Ben’s remarks. I think there are two issues here.
The first feeds, again, off of the fantasy football culture. There seems to be a feeling of personal betrayal among a certain segment of fantasy players when a player doesn’t live up to their pre-season hype. And to be fair, there are plenty of non-fantasy-playing fans who feel this way, too, like the people that were burning trash on Tommy Maddox’s lawn. But fantasy football really expands the “market,” if you will.
It seems quite likely the player himself is disappointed by not living up to his own expectations. But his responsibility is to his team, and to a lesser exten, his fans, not to the legions of fantasy football guys. Quite honestly, other than in the part of his situation which happens to align with the FF “needs,” surely he couldn’t care less. Let’s take a for-instance.
Ben threw for a lot of yards last Sunday (good for fantasy but, as the results showed, bad for the game in which he was engaged.) I don’t know whether most fantasy teams get dinged for the interceptions, but I’m sure more touchdown passes would have been a good thing. But, presuming that the fantasy stats don’t care about the interceptions, then from a fantasy standpoint it would have been even better had Ben thrown even more. Never mind that it appears in retrospect that running the ball more would have most likely resulted in a better outcome for the team.
The second issue may seem like an odd one—the one to which I alluded in my title. The problem is, Ben says what he’s thinking. It seems to me that most people who spend a lot of time with the media learn to disguise what they are thinking pretty well, unless there is a benefit to saying what you actually think. (Such benefits might include “sending a message” or what have you.) For an example of this, try to remember what Mike Tomlin’s press conferences were like ten years ago.
I wasn’t listening to Tomlin’s press conferences at that time, but I have heard local media people say, often enough that I believe them, that Tomlin is much more guarded and less engaging and informative than he used to be. Tomlin loves words, he’s smart, and he seems to delight in stating ordinary things in a way which could be construed as misleading or just confusing. (What the heck does “thoughfully non-rhythmic” mean?) I suspect there was always an element of this in Tomlin’s conferences. I’m guessing that as he saw week after week how what he was saying was misconstrued or misrepresented it probably got pretty old, and he got increasingly good at saying very little using a lot of words.
Ben Roethlisberger has apparently never lost the impulse to just say what’s on his mind, whether this is something fleeting or something he’s given a great deal of thought to. And my contention is that especially outside of the local media such transparency is difficult to deal with. Therefore things which would otherwise be somewhat of a blip on the radar get blown out of proportion.
And part of the reason for this takes us right back to fantasy football. Because everybody wants to know whether they should “bench” Ben next week—whether he’s really done, or whether he’s going to make them look foolish by going out and throwing for five touchdowns in his next game.
But let’s make a simpler argument. If you’re being paid like the top running back in the league, should you be performing like it? Insofar as it is dependent upon you, yes. But a great deal of what happens in a football game is only somewhat under your control.
I just read an analysis of some of the things which went wrong in the Jacksonville game, and one that I certainly would never have known about was Jesse James apparently misunderstanding his role in what might have been a touchdown for Bell in the third quarter. He just ran into the end zone instead of jamming the lane Paul Posluszny used to get to Bell before he could get to the goal line. So is this Bell’s fault, James’ fault, the fault of the scheme, or what? This sort of thinking is way too nuanced for the fantasy folk. Instead, they are angry because Bell let them down.
And what is missing from all of this, whether we’re talking about AB, Ben, Martavis, or whoever, is the sense that these are men. They have families. They have problems. They have good days and bad days. But none of this is of interest in the fantasy culture, unless a way is devised to quantify these factors and plug them into a calculation as to the probable effect on their next game. And let us hope to heaven that such a thing is never devised, because then these men would truly never have a life.
I’m just going to leave you with a tweet Terrell Watson put out last night:
— Terrell Watson (@terrellwatson33) October 12, 2017