It’s the punch to the gut when the ref isn’t looking. It’s the extra hard hit to the head. It’s the twisting of an ankle or the wrenching of something more personal at the bottom of the pile. It’s called “Steelers Sportsmanship,” and it’s something the New York Jets must overcome if they’re going to make it to Super Bowl XLV.
In the new and improved NFL, poor sportsmanship will not be tolerated. But the NFL’s undertrained, underpaid, semiprofessional officials don’t have the skills or the attention spans to police the tougher policy.
That’s why the Pittsburgh Steelers will be getting away with this roster of dirty tricks when they play the New York Jets this Sunday.
Look closely this Sunday behind the face mask of Hines Ward, Pittsburgh’s veteran receiver. He’ll probably be smiling or even laughing it up with the Jets secondary. Don’t think for a minute that the players are sharing a joke. Ward’s expression is the smirk of a sociopath. Just ask Keith Rivers, the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker, whose jaw was shattered thanks to a vicious hit by Ward.
But Ward’s comedy act isn’t fooling anyone in the NFL. Back in November 2009, Sports Illustrated conducted a player poll, asking: Who’s the dirtiest player in the league? You would think defensive players, who are paid to take shots, would sweep the top honors. No, the winner was Hines Ward, with 11.6% of the vote compared with only 6% scored by Arizona’s Joey Porter, who at the time played for Miami.
"I beat Joey? Wow, that's definitely a big honor to beat Joey Porter," Ward said, laughing and pointing out that he has no intention of rethinking the way he plays.
And true to his word, Ward continues to live up to his Sports Illustrated title, maybe even more so as age diminishes his skills. That means the Jets just might see new varieties of Steelers Sportsmanship from Hines.
If the Sports Illustrated dirty player survey were conducted this year, Hines Ward might be given a run for his money by teammate James Harrison. The Steeler linebacker has been fined by the NFL for vicious hits on three separate occasions in 2010.
They included a $20,000 fine for a late hit penalty on Saints quarterback Drew Brees and a $75,000 fine for his October 17th helmet hit that left Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi with a concussion.
Like Ward, Harrison showed no signs of remorse or regret. “The amount of money is becoming an issue,” he told the media. “The fines that they issued to me, two of them weren’t even called penalties. I don’t even know what to say anymore.”
Just say “Steelers Sportsmanship,” Jimmy, and go break some heads.
The Pittsburgh Steelers dirty play is so over-the-top that it confuses the on-field officials (who have a tenuous grasp on the game to begin with).
Consider the saga of NFL referee Bill Leavy who this past summer acknowledged that he made game-changing mistakes during the 2006 Super Bowl in which Pittsburgh beat the Seattle Seahawks 21-10.
"It was a tough thing for me. I kicked two calls in the fourth quarter and I impacted the game, and as an official you never want to do that," Leavy said. "It left me with a lot of sleepless nights, and I think about it constantly. I'll go to my grave wishing that I'd been better."
Far from being buried, Bill Leavy was the head official for the Jets/Patriots game last Sunday. Guess the league attributes his mistakes to Steelers Sportsmanship.
During the Steelers 35-3 trouncing of the Oakland Raiders this season, referee Tony Corrente used his whistle so much, he lost it somewhere on the field. But those in the know say that Tony’s tweeter was swallowed whole by Hines Ward. No x-rays were taken, however, so it’s impossible to know for sure.
What is known is that the Steelers were penalized more during that matchup than in any other game in the history of the team. They amassed 163 yards worth of penalties and triggered six personal foul infractions. All at a time when the league is cracking down on rough play and poor sportsmanship.
"If you start letting penalties affect the way we play, we're not going to be the aggressive team that we've always been," linebacker LaMarr Woodley told the Associated Press.
"When we play like that, it brings more excitement to the game," center Maurkice Pouncey agreed. "The fans love it, the coaches love it. We're going at it. Let's play football."
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu reportedly challenged the Commissioner’s Office and its authority for imposing fines for rough play. "We can play the way we play," he said. "I don't imagine us changing our style."
Finally, there’s the strange case of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers quarterback. Twice accused of being a rapist and getting off with a four-game suspension from the NFL, Roethlisberger reportedly got engaged over the holiday season.
The Pittsburgh quarterback refuses to confirm or deny his betrothal. But it really doesn’t matter. Having a bride-to-be will not diminish the essential element of creepiness that Roethlisberger contributes to Steelers Sportsmanship.