Pittsburgh and its Steelers: civic pride or codependency?

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

When the festivities end and the barricades are taken down in the South Side, it might be time to bar up the windows and lock the doors. That might seem to be an exaggeration, but after some statistical merrymaking, this apparent overstatement will morph into sound advice.

Sure, there is a charming characteristic to a city with a pervasive civic pride. Yet even when the bus exhaust puffs black and gold it can serve, at best, as only a smoggy cloud covering the lack of a civic essence. Pittsburgh, outside its sport franchises, actually has very little civic pride. If the city of Pittsburgh is a damaged piece of furniture, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and their beloved Steelers Nation, are the lacquered facade covering the blemishes.

Today, as Super Bowl fever grips the region, a visitor to Pittsburgh could not help but be enveloped with Steeler Pride. The buses flash “Go Steelers” on their displays. Be they mom-and-pop shops or corporate bailiwicks, Steelers paraphernalia line the windows of every business from the gritty downtown to the sprawling suburbs of the Steel City.

The black and gold signs display “Go Steelers,” “In Ben We Trust,” or “One for the Thumb.” However, they should read: “Watch your back if the Steelers win.” Hell, watch your back if the Steelers lose. The case tying a climate of crime to a fanatical obsession can be strongly placed into the public docket.

Tying the mental health of a city to the rise and fall of a sports franchise is unhealthy even by the most anecdotal of measures and evidence. In a recent New York Times opinion editorial, the author, Holly Brubach, attempts to lay out a case in favor of the quirks of the city of Pittsburgh. Instead, Brubach provides readers with statements indicative of this city’s tenuous general mental health.

She writes that “Pittsburgh needs the Steelers in a way that few, if any, other cities need their teams. The Steelers are our mirror: they tell us who we are. When they win, we walk a little taller.” What does that sound like — a devout fan, or a codependent depressive who feels incomplete without her significant obsession’s presence?

The tragedy of the resident-team relationship continues to unfold in Brubach’s piece. Speaking to her earlier years as a resident of “Da Burgh,” she speaks of her “appreciation for Pittsburgh” as “relatively recent.” She continues, saying, “Like a lot of natives, I grew up feeling apologetic that the city, with its smokestacks, factories, and railroad trestles, wasn’t picturesque (this was back in the days before ‘industrial’ was an aesthetic); that, being closer to Ohio than to the Eastern seaboard, it wasn’t more cosmopolitan; that it was a blunt, hard-charging, working-class town in an increasingly nuanced, executive world. When, beginning in 1975, the Steelers won four Super Bowls in six years, they earned us a respect we’d never had, not even for ourselves.”

Concentrate on that closing line. The Steelers’ winning of the four Super Bowls garnered these residents a “respect,” one that never existed for them even when they thought about “themselves.” This is a troubling thought. Sports can be both uplifting and memorable, but they are nothing more than entertainment. A memorable sporting event has always been more about the people you are watching or attending with than the effect it has on one’s mental health and well-being. The relationship between citizen and franchise is more complex when said franchise’s success is tied to measureable negative effects.

The emphasis of a society, and more locally, a city, cannot rely solely on a concentration in arts and leisure. In the long run, sports are insignificant. When a city’s mental health and general pride are so closely tied to a particular franchise, that city can experience other problems associated with the rise and fall of that franchise. What would one say if there were data that supported a correlation in an increase or decrease in local violent crime with a large change in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ win/loss record? The following has a controversial taint; but remember this quick exercise in empirical data analysis has a benevolent intent in hand.

Using the last 10 years of available FBI criminal statistics data, there are some points of interest. There is a correlation between the two largest increases in violent crime in Pittsburgh and the Steelers’ win/loss records taking a downturn. In 2002, the number of violent crimes in this city jumped from 2964 to 3794, an increase of 28 percent. This, the highest jump in violent crime in the 10-year study, corresponds to a change in the Steelers’ win column from 13 to 10 during the same time period.

Next, examine the period from 1997 to 1998. Violent crimes jumped from 2778 to 3156, an increase of 13.6 percent. This was the second-largest jump in violent crimes in the 10-year time period studied here. It also happens to correspond to a Steelers win-column change from 11 in 1997 to seven in 1998.

The correlation also works in the opposite direction. In 2000, the Pittsburgh Steelers went 9–7 and missed the playoffs. The next year, the Steelers went to 13–3 and the AFC championship game. This positive change in the team’s record corresponds to the largest drop in violent crime in the 10-year sample: a drop of 10 percent from 2000 to 2001. Even considering last year, with the dramatic franchise record reversal as an obvious outlier, there is a generally significant correlation found in the numbers.

Any researcher worth his salt must admit that correlation does not equal causation. Yet, these figures offer one something evocative to ponder. Are these numbers simply causal coincidences? Maybe. Or perhaps they are indicative of a more pandemic problem. When temporary satisfaction associated with a sport franchise’s success is confused with true personal happiness, it is time for some introspection. That said: Go Steelers.