- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2009

TAMPA, Fla.

Can we dial down, just a bit, the adulation of the Steelers and the Steelers Way? It’s spinning out of control, this family-owned-team, football-as-it-oughta-be lovefest. Why, the other day on ESPN’s Web site, a column bore the headline “Are the Steelers the greatest franchise?”

To which I reply: Well, if you close your eyes to the first four decades of their existence, during which they never - not once - played in the NFL championship game, then you can probably include them in the discussion.

A few paragraphs into the piece, the misguided author acknowledged the franchise’s early futility and said he was talking, really, about the Super Bowl era - the scope of his own lifetime, in other words. This allowed him to eliminate, among others, the Green Bay Packers, who have won 12 NFL titles to the Steelers’ five. Somehow, though, he forgot about the Los Angeles Lakers, who in the Super Bowl era have appeared in 19 NBA Finals and accumulated nine rings. The Lakers, amazingly, were never even mentioned.

This is an extreme example of the lightheadedness many seem to experience when gazing upon the Steelers, who will arm-wrestle the Cardinals here Sunday in Roman Numeral Game No. 43. In the mind’s eye of these worshippers, Pittsburgh suddenly becomes Mayberry and Dan Rooney is transformed into Sheriff Andy (with Hines Ward - “Papa Smurf” to his teammates - playing the part of Opie).

Typical of the gushing is what appeared in the Boston Globe a couple of days ago: “When it comes to football owners, [the Rooneys] are often referred to as the NFL’s gold standard.”

Don’t get me wrong, I have great appreciation for what the franchise has accomplished since 1972 - for the unpretentiousness of the owners, for their ability to keep the club in the running for championships despite having thinner wallets than some of their competitors. It’s remarkable, it truly is, that the Steelers could let free agents like Neil O’Donnell, Chad Brown, Leon Searcy, Carnell Lake, Rod Woodson, Plaxico Burress, Joey Porter and Alan Faneca (to name only a handful) walk out the door and continue winning. If I ever bought an NFL team, the first thing I’d do is kidnap the Pittsburgh scouting staff. Those guys know all the right rocks to look under.

But let’s not forget: From the 1980 to 2004 seasons, the Steelers went to exactly one Super Bowl - and lost it to the Cowboys. Beyond that, there’s the issue of Heinz Field (or as I like to refer to it, the $281 Million Condiment).

I’m not a demographics expert, but Pittsburgh has never struck me as the Monaco of the eastern United States. It’s a working-class area, and money is hard-earned. Yet the Rooneys had no problem letting the city pick up most of the tab for the stadium even though the NFL is the richest sports league in history and the Steelers are estimated to be worth in excess of $1 billion. Granted, the deal was struck back in the ‘90s, and granted, this is how most NFL clubs operate. But aren’t the Steelers supposed to be different from other clubs? Hasn’t Dan Rooney himself said, “We believe in trying to do things the way they should be?”

Given the current economic climate, such a financial arrangement seems reprehensible. Folks are hurting, getting kicked out of their homes, but nobody’s going to foreclose on Heinz Field. Think Pittsburgh could find other uses these days for the $200-odd million it sank into the Steelers’ stadium (and the similar amount it spent on the Pirates’ palace)? I don’t hear Rooney offering any refunds, though.

Not every NFL playground, I’ll just point out, was built on the public dime. FedEx Field, for instance, was largely paid for by the late Jack Kent Cooke. And Joe Robbie, before he died, footed most of the bill for Dolphin Stadium. The Patriots’ Bob Kraft, meanwhile, came up with the majority of the dough for Gillette Stadium. For that reason, the Pats - with their three titles and six Super Bowl trips since the ‘85 season - are, to me, more of a Model Franchise, more the Gold Standard, than the Steelers are.

It would have been nice if the Steelers had applied the genius that has made them so good for so long to figuring out a way to pay for their own stadium. Something tells me they could have done it, even if they had to take out a 40-year mortgage. But it was easier to prey on the fans’ loyalties - and on the region’s identification with the franchise’s success.

That’s the heavy-handed NFL Way. It might be good “business” - indeed, the Steelers probably saw it as self-preservation - there’s just nothing particularly laudable about it. In the end, it’s less about gold standards and more about gold.

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