I hope the Steelers aren't as complacent about the Super Bowl as I am.
Don't get me wrong: I'd love the Steelers to be the first team to win a half-dozen Super Bowls. It would cap a foundation built in the 1970s, and allow me to send snarky e-mails to friends in New England.
But while winning Super Bowl XLIII would be great ... it won't bring the same vindication winning Super Bowl XL did. For the first time, I can almost understand what people mean when they say, "It's just a game."
And from what I can tell, I'm not alone.
When the Steelers went up against the Seattle Seahawks in 2006, every fan I know brought years of heartache to the game. "One for the thumb" was one of those catchwords -- like "Skybus," or "Homestead Works" -- whose mocking echo had been ringing for two decades. The 1980s sucked for the Steelers and their city. Then came the abortive 1996 Super Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys -- one more disappointment in a decade whose prosperity seemed to pass us by. "One for the thumb" took on a despairingly dated air, like commercials for the Ford Fairmont -- relics from an age so misbegotten that even its dreams were embarrassing, like polyester pants.
You'd expect this match-up with the Cardinals to revive old existential doubts. Civic leaders here have a fetish for comparing ourselves to other cities, after all. (Before the AFC Championship game, the local tourism bureau sent out a release titled "Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore: How We're Alike." The first entry: Both cities have neighborhoods.) Arizona is the Sun Belt to our Rust Belt, the place where so many former Pittsburghers moved. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently asserted that "Allegheny County sent more residents to Phoenix's Maricopa County than any other in America."
But I see few signs of a broader soul-searching. Maybe we exorcised some of our demons in 2006. Maybe we're tired of the Steelers-fans-that-aren't-here-anymore story line. It can't hurt that national publications like The New York Times have noted that Pittsburgh has (so far) avoided the worst of the economic meltdown. In any case, love for the Steelers no longer seems like a Freudian reaction to doubts about the city.
If anyone seems on the verge of derangement, actually, it's the doubters themselves.
Prominent local conservative Jerry Bowyer, for example, published a Jan. 17 piece in the Wall Street Journal objecting to "sports mania." Bowyer's piece argues that being happy about sports distracts us from serious problems. "Football triumphalism is a kind of civic cocaine," he argues, "creating a sense of accomplishment where the reality is otherwise."
Like Bowyer, I was opposed to building new facilities for the Steelers and Pirates. But let it go, man. You sound like a Seahawks fan still bitching about the refs. Plus, you're the author of the 2003 book The Bush Boom: How a 'Misunderestimated' President Fixed Our Broken Economy. Do you really want to accuse others of "creating a sense of accomplishment where the reality is otherwise"?
Still, I know some progressives who agree with Bowyer that Super Bowl fever "is a substitute for genuine economic achievement. Sure the middle class is disappearing. But, hey, how 'bout them Steelers?" It seems a particularly popular sentiment among those who want Mayor Luke Ravenstahl voted out of office. The concern seems to be that a winning football team fosters complacency, which Ravenstahl shamelessly takes advantage of -- to the point of silly stunts like pretending to change his name to "Steelerstahl."
There's truth to that, of course. But if the Steelers hadn't made the playoffs, I doubt Pittsburghers would be spending their Sundays poring over actuarial tables, trying to come to grips with the city's pension debt. Is obsessing over football "bread and circuses"? Sure. But in an age of satellite TV and Internet porn, the circus is always in town. That's a huge and maybe fatal problem, but it's probably unfair to pin it on a football franchise. Especially when the offensive line already has plenty to answer for.
Anyway, maybe this is the year we hear a little less of the "Here We Go" song -- and find it a little less maddening when it does get played. Maybe this is the year we realize we don't have to live by Steelers football -- and that our city isn't dying from it either.
Of course, if the Steelers lose ... all bets are off.