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'Steelers Way' Off

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These types of headlines aren't the ones that Steelers fans are used to seeing.
  • These types of headlines aren't the ones that Steelers fans are used to seeing.

Ask your dad or your grandfather about the "Steelers Way" and you're likely to get lectured about how it stands for players who respect themselves, their community and the game.

Pittsburgh fans believe the Steelers franchise is a cut above others. You'll never, for example, see the Rooneys in a bidding war for such talented but troubled players as Terrell Owens and Michael Vick. As recently as March 23, coach Mike Tomlin told the media as much.

"It's well known we're very, very conscious about how we do business, that we're very highly concerned about our image perception; how we conduct ourselves, our standards of conduct, is above and beyond that of our peers," Tomlin said.

Maybe not so much these days.

On March 5, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student in a bar in Milledgeville, Ga. On March 25, two days after Tomlin's presser, a Miami college student filed a civil lawsuit against wide receiver Santonio Holmes for allegedly throwing a glass at her face in a nightclub. Add that to Roethlisberger's sexual-assault civil suit from last summer; linebacker James Harrison's 2008 charges for allegedly hitting his girlfriend; tight end Matt Spaeth's public urination; and kicker Jeff Reed's alleged altercations with a paper-towel dispenser and city police officers; and the phrase "These aren't your father's Steelers" takes on a whole new meaning.

But is it antiquated to expect virtue from your athletes and a franchise? Is it naïve to expect professional athletes to live up to a code set by guys who aren't around anymore? The "Steelers Way" appears to be quickly becoming a thing of the past. But did it really stand a chance in an age of 24-hour gossip cycles? 

"In the past couple years, I think eyes have been opened to the fact that every franchise, regardless of its history and prior stature, has flaws," says Robert Littal, an NFL blogger for WashingtonPost.com and his own site, Black Sports Online (blacksportsonline.com). "No longer can the color of a guy's helmet protect the player inside of it."

 

There was a time, says Littal, when news of a Steeler getting in trouble in Nevada or Miami likely wouldn't make it back to Pittsburgh. But thanks to news outlets like TMZ and thousands of blogs, "It's a whole new world out there holding athletes accountable for their actions 24/7," he says. "As an outsider looking in, I see Pittsburgh fans as stuck in their old ways and traditions, and they want their team to be stuck there too."

Chris Viola, lead blogger for the Steelers fansite called Nice Pick, Cowher (www.nicepickcowher.com), has posted repeatedly about the Steelers' woes. The post titles say it all: "Santonio Holmes Enjoys Assaulting Women, Too," "Big Ben Can Keep His DNA," and "Ben Roethlisberger Claims Victim Is a Slutty Klutz."

He says "it's just not realistic" to expect athletes to be perfect: "You have to expect a little bit of baggage with these players." And while "the problems start when you get into these more serious charges," he says that in Roethlisberger's case, "a lot of fans are waiting to see if he's charged with anything. If these charges go away and he comes back and wins an AFC title and goes to the Super Bowl, then this will be looked at, rightly or wrongly, as little more than a blip on the radar."

But Jack Singer, a certified sports psychologist, from Laguna, Calif. (www.drjacksinger.com), says fans have a right to expect more from their teams. And if they are let down, the blame belongs to those who should be protecting that image -- management.

"These players are in very vulnerable positions and the coaches and the owners have the responsibility to guide them into making the right choices and decisions," Singer says. "But in most cases, especially when you're dealing with the team's most talented athletes, they tend to look the other way because they don't want to lose that talent.

"How many times have you seen a troubled player get kicked off one team only to be picked up by another?" he continues. Too often teams "treat these players like pieces of meat. The only thing that matters is winning."

Viola also agrees that the Rooneys, like other team owners, need to be more consistent when players don't act in accordance with the franchise's rules and code of conduct.

Last season, for example, running back Rashard Mendenhall was suspended for not properly preparing for a game. Holmes was immediately suspended for a game in 2008 when he was involved in a traffic stop that yielded a small amount of marijuana. (That charge was eventually thrown out when a judge ruled that police stopped Holmes improperly.) But the team took no action after Reed scuffled with police outside a bar near Heinz Field: Many talk-radio callers and other fans suspected it was because the team couldn't replace the kicker on such short notice. And the team has kept quiet about the most recent allegations.

"There's a double-standard there for certain players, and I think they've handled this whole situation pretty poorly," Viola says. "There's all this talk about trying to uphold a standard here. But to be honest, I haven't seen them do that."

So far, like the team's fans, the Steelers have taken a "wait and see" approach on the Roethlisberger investigation.

"I mean, look, that's one of the things, we do have a little bit of luxury of time," Art Rooney II told the Post-Gazette on March 18. "If we were at a different point in the year we may have to be thinking and doing something different. But at the moment, I think we're in a situation we're going to let this investigation play out and then go from there."

But for the Steelers' fans and reputation, could that be too late?

 

While the Steelers' recent problems have been great fodder for his classes, John Clark, an associate professor of sports management at Robert Morris University, says they've been disastrous for the franchise. The team's handling of the current scandals could determine whether the "Steelers Way" survives.

"At some point they have to show that they're doing something, be it drastic measures like suspensions or simply a long talk about what's expected [from] the team's players," Clark says. "If they don't do that, then there will be a serious chink in the team's image. And while I don't think the current allegations will harm the overall brand's strength, any more [accusations] that would come to light certainly could."

The team's reputation for steering clear of problem players has helped the Steelers over the years, Clark says. But it has put higher expectations on the franchise.. 

"Whether they wanted that label or not, they've gotten it," says Clark. "They are a beloved institution in this town and that reputation is part of the reason why."

Of course, most fans will find a way to root for their team no matter what, says Pauline Wallin, a Camp Hill, Pa., psychologist who has written about problem athletes.

"People need their heroes, and sometimes their heroes fail them," she says. But that doesn't necessarily end the hero worship. Wallin says fans have a way of rationalizing their favorite players' actions while vilifying the actions of others. 

"If a guy from another team does something, you blame it on his moral character and say, 'He's not the kind of guy we want around here,'" says Wallin. "But when their guy does something, they make excuses -- he was framed, or the situation has been taken out of context. They skew the evidence to fit what they believe."

But you can do that only for so long, she adds, before a team loses its reputation for being a cut above.

"If you keep rationalizing and making excuses, then eventually your standards will become much lower," says Wallin. "So the 'Steelers Way' that you now believe in isn't the same as it was 20 years ago, and probably won't be the same 10 or 20 years from now.

"It will become watered down to the point that it's not an important way of doing business, but something else. Probably just words."

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