Bubbles and Fake Sports News
Image via Steelers.com
By Ivan Cole
Hombre brought this little nugget from a recent Ed Bouchette chat transcript to my attention.
D Hawk: Hi Ed. Don’t you think it’s time to move off from Ben? Maybe try to get Rivers,
Cutler or Cousins? They will never win with Ben.
Ed Bouchette: Thank you for our weekly laugh of the chat. Please drive home safely.
If you are a regular visitor to this site, you probably think that the above comment is more than a bit unhinged. However, no matter how stunning such an assertion might strike us, if you find it surprising you just haven’t been paying attention. It would be oh- so-easy to dismiss this as being simply moronic, but I think that misses the mark.
Recently, there has been a lot of conversation in the mainstream culture about the trend towards tribalization and the insulated bubbles of perceived reality that develop as a result. While it appears to be a revelation to some, it has been the norm in the universe of sports fandom for quite some time. What is Steelers Nation but a tribe? Arguably one of 32 in the NFL alone. Each of these tribes operates within its own matrix and are also connected to larger informational networks. The connection within and between these universes and some shared, agreed upon version of reality can be tenuous.
The worldview expressed by D Hawk is -I hope- well on the margins for Steelers Nation, but in the Washington area where I live it is much closer to mainstream belief than you would think.
It was brought to my attention months ago that a popular narrative in the DC sports talk universe was the Steelers organization and its fans were wildly covetous of obtaining Kurt Cousins as a replacement (and an upgrade!!) for Ben Roethlisberger. I thought they were joking. They weren’t. Further, they believed that, though it appeared that Ben would make things easy by stepping down on his own, if he didn’t then it would be appropriate, as D Hawk suggests, to push him out the door, and not let this opportunity pass.
What made this line of thinking seem a little peculiar from my perspective is that I consider Cousins no better than the fifth best quarterback IN THE NFC EAST. Carson Wentz and Nick Foles (Eagles), Eli Manning (Giants) Dak Prescott (Cowboys), all better in my view. Certainly, they are better fits for the Steelers if it ever came to that. You might even make the case that Cousins isn’t even the best quarterback on his own team now that Alex Smith is in the fold. I’m not even sure I would prefer Cousins over backup Colt McCoy.
However, what is undeniable is that Cousins is now a ‘thing’ around the league. Remember when Matt Flynn and Matt Cassel were ‘things’? A full examination of why that might be is beyond the scope of this piece but let me suggest that its roots may lie in the need to inflate Cousins’ ability and potential in tandem with a campaign to discredit and justify the elimination of his predecessor, Robert Griffin III.
The point is that this is the distorting power of bubbles at work. An example, involving a quarterback and being closer to home would be Landry Jones. In our bubble narrative (one I have subscribed to myself at times) Jones is an utter and complete waste of human flesh who somehow continues to pollute the Steelers’ roster with his presence. An alternative narrative is that of a competent backup -nothing more or less- who might be a starter and an asset for any number of teams in this league, but not a franchise caliber talent.
These bubble narratives can be especially persuasive at this time of the year when there is little in the way grounding evidence such as games played, talent procured or released, and allowing for all manner of playground-style speculation that can stand unchallenged by facts for months.
This is beyond fortunate for a sports media and fan culture challenged to maintain a freshness and relevance twelve months out of the year. When I was writing for Behind The Steel Curtain I coined the term MSU (Making S**t Up) where massive amounts of oxygen is taken up with predictions, such as mock drafts, rumormongering and unsubstantiated ‘analysis’.
These are largely risk-free strategies to in which to engage. There are few, if any penalties for wrong predictions. At this time of the year a Mel Kiper might as well be God On Earth in the estimation of many fans. In two months after the conclusion of the draft he will largely disappear from view until the commencement of the 2019 mock draft season (though for some that process has already begun). He will not be required to ever explain why he failed to sound the alarm when Hall of Fame caliber players like Tom Brady and Antonio Brown fell to the sixth round.
This year, as has been true almost every year that I can remember, there is the hand wringing about the Steelers being in one circle or another of salary cap Hell with attendant casualties. If history holds they will manage to do, with few exceptions pretty much what they want. Just weeks ago, it was accepted truth that the 2017 season would be Ben Roethlisberger’s last. Now, not only will he play out the current contract, but the conversation is about an extension.
Current wisdom says that Le’Veon Bell just isn’t worth the expense, and the team can survive, even thrive with less talented options. On the surface there is something to be said about this. The Browns and the Bears only won one world championship a piece when they had Jim Brown and Walter Payton on their rosters. And the Lions, Bills and Rams didn’t win jack with Barry Sanders, O J Simpson and Eric Dickerson respectively.
Generational players of any variety (think Dan Marino) don’t guarantee anything. But neither do cheap knock offs. Word is already out that Pittsburgh will continue to be a huge primetime draw, due in no small measure to the presence of Bell. Being that pro football is as much about entertainment and money this no small consideration. Neither is the statement by Maurkice Pouncey urging the team to pay the man. Competitors want to play with the best. Another consideration.
One interesting realization is that it is sometimes the more successful and privileged fan bases that are the most fragile and most susceptible to off the wall narratives. After their recent loss in the Super Bowl some in Patriots Nation are complaining that Belichick doesn’t have it anymore, or never did in the first place. Last year Ravens fans wanted to show John Harbaugh the door after their Christmas Day loss to Pittsburgh. Need I have to say anything about how familiar this sounds to those of us in Steelers Nation. In the past I recall hearing similar sentiments coming from New York Yankee and Los Angles Laker fans during their dynasty periods and being astonished of how bizarre it was to witness some of most fortunate sports fans in the world manage to snatch misery from the jaws of joy.
Apparently, some can be quite serious about the idea of Super Bowl or Bust. When teams like the Steelers, Ravens and Patriots fail it is about falling one or two victories short of ultimate success. In case of the Ravens in 2016, nine seconds was the margin of error. The response of the snowflakes in these various bubbles is to take a meat cleaver to the staffs and rosters, proposing, with a straight face, financial arrangements that they almost certainly would find personally insulting if applied to themselves (tell those school teachers in West Virginia to be happy with a hometown discount), and that the formula for a five star meal is to take away the filet mignon (Ben) and the lobster (Bell), and substitute meat loaf (Cousins or Cutler) and fish sticks (some random running back). What could possibly go wrong?
Penny wise. Not being able to discern between an expense and an investment has sunk families, businesses and nations. It may, indeed, be that Pittsburgh can’t afford Bell. It may be true that Ben doesn’t have it anymore, that a contract extension is misplaced sentimentality when there are so many younger, franchise-caliber-future-first-ballot-hall- of-fame-quarterbacks out there on the streets looking for a home. It may be that the Steelers team is a dumpster fire that somehow faked its was to a 13-3 record but has major problems.
On the other hand, it could just be fake news.