While in Pittsburgh to attend the Ravens vs. Steelers game a few weeks ago, my wife and I marveled at the team’s hold on its city.
Though I wasn’t surprised by how much Pittsburgh loves its Steelers, seeing the maturity with which the Steel City handles its devotion made me rethink my feelings about the relationship between sports and community.
Every city with multiple professional and college sports teams has one that means a little more than the rest. Fans root for the others, but there’s always one whose fortune controls the city’s collective mood.
That team wins, and the city is alive with celebration. People walk around the next day with their heads a little higher and their chests puffed out.
The team loses, and the sun is a pale shadow of itself the next day. The city collectively sinks into depression, trudging slowly and glumly about its business.
The NBA rules the country's two largest cities. New York loves the Giants and the Yankees, but hasn't stopped writing books about a Knicks championship run more than 40 years ago. In LA, the Lakers have always been the marquee attraction. Nothing brings out the Hollywood stars like a Lakers game.
Washingtonians got swept up in the excitement of the Nationals’ first playoff run, and the Capitals have a passionately loyal following. But neither team grips the city the way the Redskins do. Robert Griffin III’s arrival has been nothing short of messianic for a city waiting decades for a genuine gridiron star.
I remember an old joke about St. Louis’ priorities. The day after the football Cardinals left for Arizona, newspaper headlines supposedly read, “Ozzie [Smith, the former baseball Cardinals’ shortshop] Goes Three for Four; Football Team Leaves for Phoenix.”
Having lived in several multiple-sport cities, I am familiar with the phenomenon. But I’ve never seen a team dominate its city the way the Pittsburgh Steelers do. If you didn’t know that Pittsburgh was also home to the Penguins, the Pirates and the University of Pittsburgh teams, you might think that the Steelers were the only club in town.
At an upscale restaurant the night before the game, we saw three fellow diners wearing Steelers gear and heard two other tables discussing the team’s prospects. On game day, the city exploded with black and yellow. Everyone from age zero to 93 was wearing Steelers gear. Even where we were staying near the university, Steelers shirts, sweatshirts, hats and other paraphernalia far outnumbered Pitt accoutrements.
Much as I enjoy watching sports, I had always been suspicious of this passion. I came into adulthood without a strong rooting interest and with a healthy skepticism about blind love for a team. Dismayed at the excesses often permitted in the name of "supporting the team," I always viewed such devotion as problematic and dangerous. I felt it enabled fans to ignore some pretty awful things.
High schools that devote more resources to ferrying their football and basketball teams to out-of-state games than to ensuring their students graduate.
College football programs willing to cover up any scandal to continue gobbling up bowl money.
Baseball fans who believe that beating an opposing team’s supporter into a coma in the parking lot is an appropriate display of their devotion.
A system that moralizes about the “Americanness” of giving convicted felons a second chance…until slower 40-yard dash times make those redemption projects bad guys again.
Witnessing the way that the entire city of Pittsburgh rallies around its team, however, made me realize that a community caring about sports can be positive as well. As long as it’s done in the right spirit.
Yes, loving a team blindly can be dangerous. It can discourage fans from holding owners, players and coaches accountable for their actions off the field.
But at the same time, giving yourself over to a team and allowing yourself to care about it lets you become part of something bigger than yourself. What we saw in Pittsburgh made me realize that devotion to a team gives a city a shared identity, a rallying point and something that allows its millions of residents to feel a sense of togetherness that is otherwise alien to groups that large.
In the metropolises of the modern world, the anonymity can destroy a sense of community that exists in small towns. Most of us city-dwellers know no more than a couple hundred people in our immediate surroundings. We probably interact with less than 30 of them on a daily basis.
Linked tenuously together by connectors whose sociability allows them to transcend cliques, our hundreds of thousands of little groups bunch together to form a city of millions. But not necessarily a community. Without some unifying force, a large city is just a lot of people living in the same space.
Shared love for a sports team, however, can give people a common ground and can create a united community out of a giant, soulless metropolis. And that can be a very good thing.
It is only dangerous when people lose their perspective. At the end of the day, it’s just a game. Winning or losing doesn’t really say anything about the team’s or its rival’s community.
And that’s what impressed us most about Pittsburgh fans. Though we haven’t seen a team take over a city the way the Steelers do, we have seen people passionately supporting their team. Steelers fans are unique, however, in that they love their team deeply and in moderation at the same time. They keep the game in perspective.
At the stadium, we saw a smattering of Ravens fans. We expected them to be treated the same way Steelers fans are treated in Baltimore. Jeers, threats of physical abuse, food and drinks thrown. The sort of things that have become commonplace at NFL stadiums. We saw none of that.
Steelers fans behaved with class and dignity, even when the game didn’t go their way. And in doing so, they taught me an important lesson about the benefits of loving a team.
Like anything else, it is healthy in moderation.