For those without a rooting interest in either the Pittsburgh Steelers or Green Bay Packers, the teams’ politics might help you decide for whom to cheer. Last year the politics of the Super Bowl were easy, as the New Orleans Saints, embodying the revival of a great multicultural city, faced an Indianapolis Colts team that won the title only a few years earlier.
This Super Bowl is more complex. The Rooney family that owns the Steelers are the most progressive NFL owners. The Rooney’s were the driving force behind the increased hiring of African-American head coaches (“the Rooney Rule”), selected little-known African-American Mike Tomlin as head coach of one of football’s great franchises, and strongly backed Democrat Barack Obama in 2008. On the other hand, the Green Bay Packers are the only publicly owned NFL team, and prove that small market teams can get to the top in a major professional sport. It’s a tough choice, and here’s a fuller analysis.
Although polls show that the Steelers and Packers both have national fan bases, many people have little rooting interest in either team. Other factors then come into play, including the politics of the respective teams.
The Roethlisberger Factor
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is probably the least popular current professional athlete. His serial sexual assaults of young women, and his ability to use his superstar status to avoid jail time, is the prime explanation for polls showing that most fans want the Packers to win.
I share this dislike for Big Ben. I do not relish watching him leave the field as a conquering hero following what would be his third Super Bowl win.
For some fans, Roethlisberger’s playing for the Steelers is all they need to know. They believe that the Steelers should have released rather than just suspended him for his sexual misconduct, and that the Rooney’s – who were outspoken in their denunciation of Big Ben – have dissipated whatever credibility they had by keeping him on the team.
But others see a larger picture.
The Rooney’s operate in an NFL whose team owners include Jerry Jones, Daniel Snyder, Al Davis, and a long list of others who would not win any contests for most humble or congenial. If there were a secret ballot vote among these owners as to which among them represented what was best about the NFL, the Rooney’s would win in a landslide, and possibly unanimously.
The Rooney’s facilitated the essential NFL-AFL merger by agreeing to move the Steelers to the newly created AFC, and have long been a voice of reason in labor matters. At a time when Pittsburgh was suffering terribly from deindustrialization and population loss (the latter explains the Steelers national fan base), the Steelers kept the spirit of the city alive.
And the Steelers play the old-fashioned in your face football that Chicago Bear fans, who are supposed to hate the Packers, must secretly admire. If Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis is the defining icon for NFL defense, the Steelers Troy Polamal – named yesterday as Defensive Player of the Year – is a close second (he also may have the league’s best haircut).
So consider the greatness of the Rooney family, what the Steelers mean to Pittsburgh, and the toughness of their coach and team before choosing to root for the Packers. And a Steeler win would also make Mike Tomlin the first African-American to reach the elite, double-Super Bowl winning level for NFL coaches.
The Case for the Packers
The Green Bay Packers are the only publicly owned professional sports team, and the smallest market team to compete for a major pro title. The Packer’s blue-collar image is deserved, and those tired of seeing Pittsburgh and the hated Roethlisberger win another Super Bowl will be pulling for the Pack.
But the Packers do have a major downside.
Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of its first two Super Bowl titles, promoted a win at any cost values system that has had destructive impacts throughout American society. Lombardi’s credo that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” minimized the joy of sports participation, and spawned generations of coaches with a “win at any cost” mantra.
Even in professional sports, Lombardi’s mantra promoted the idea that every team but the eventual champion should hang their head in shame regardless of their efforts. This is nonsense, and is among the many sports “values” that have had negative impacts when applied to the broader society.
While Lombardi sometimes claimed that he had meant to say, “Winning isn’t everything. The will to win is the only thing,” he regularly promoted the more popular adage.
And it’s also worth remembering how much the Packers success in the 1960’s involved their playing championship games on the frozen tundra of Lambeau field. On a normal field, the Don Meredith-led Cowboys would have beaten the Pack rather than losing in the legendary 1967 “Ice Bowl.”
With both teams sharing a championship legacy, there is no underdog in the game. But for those still uncertain who to root for, consider this: Aaron Rodgers brought the Cal Bears football program to its highest level in decades, and then was bypassed in the draft by his hometown San Francisco 49ers, for whom he was a lifelong fan. After the 49ers made Alex Smith the top pick in the draft, Rodgers had to be on public display at the draft headquarters in New York City as each successive team bypassed him until the Packers wisely chose him late in the first round.
That embarrassing turn of events could have been a career-killer. Instead, Rodgers became the NFL’s top quarterback, and could provide a great story line if he leads his team to victory on Sunday.
As a Cal fan, I’ll be rooting for Rodgers to get the credit he so well deserves.