Bob Smizik: Slots debate turns into uncivil war

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As arriving passengers at the Pittsburgh International Airport approach the escalators that take them to the train and then to baggage claim and ground transportation, they are greeted by statues of two uniformed figures, both of whom are critical to region's history.

One is George Washington, who needs no introduction.

The other is Franco Harris, who needs no introduction.

It says a lot about our region that Harris would be afforded such an honor. We take our sports seriously here, sometimes too seriously.

This is about taking them too seriously.

Harris is a Steelers legend. He is the pivotal figure in the most famous play in NFL history and a Hall of Famer. He also has been an outstanding citizen of Allegheny County since the end of his playing days, working behind the scenes on many worthwhile public efforts.

It is Harris' involvement in a private venture that has brought him into the news recently. He works for and is an investor in Forest City, one of the groups, in conjunction with Harrah's, that is seeking a slots license in Pittsburgh. In that role, he stands opposed to the bid by Isle of Capri, which has offered, if it gets the license, to put $290 million toward a new arena.

It is in this function that Harris has come under vicious attacks from Mark Madden, whose talk show is heard weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1250. Madden has made a name for himself and delivered his station high ratings in part by going after big names. Jerome Bettis, Jim Leyland and Arnold Palmer are just some of the people he has attacked brutally. He doesn't need a reason; he just knows it makes him sound tough to his audience to take on the big names.

The one person Madden would never attack is Mario Lemieux, the owner of the Penguins and, like Harris, a superstar legend who has given back much to the community. In contrast to his rip-everything style, Madden is an unabashed fan of the Penguins and a swooning admirer of Lemieux.

Which makes it not surprising that Madden stands unalterably behind the Isle of Capri plan, which would cost the Penguins nothing and significantly enhance the value of the franchise if the team stays in Pittsburgh.

"Free is free," said Madden of the Isle of Capri plan in a phone conversation. "I want what is best for the city of Pittsburgh. I obviously want what is best for the Penguins, being a Penguins fan."

While this newspaper and this column have favored the Isle of Capri plan, which plan is the best is a debatable point and one of the reasons the Gaming Control Board is thoroughly investigating all three of the license applicants and won't make its decision for months.

Madden not only regularly bashes Harris, he has called for the assassination of public officials who have not come out in favor of the Isle of Capri plan. In a society where guns are so handy, that kind of talk, even if done in jest, is the height of irresponsibility. The Federal Communications Commission, which licenses radio stations, might be interested in those comments. It should be.

But it is Harris whom Madden attacks most fanatically. He has reached deep into his bag of vitriol because Harris works for the group that could be standing in the way of Lemieux getting what he wants.

Here's one of the terms Madden has used to describe Harris, the Pittsburgh icon and civic leader:

"Cheating scumbag.''

Harris is not a cheater, called that by Madden because of his involvement with the Immaculate Reception. Madden, with his twisted logic, deems the play illegal, although it wasn't, and even if it were Harris would not be guilty of cheating. Nor is Harris a "scumbag" or a "Judas" or a "traitor," other names Madden has called him.

That's how Madden works. He uses half-truths and innuendos to make his points.

It is not known if Madden's listeners recoiled at his character assassination of Harris, but we know his bosses at ESPN have not. He continues in the same vein almost daily. Just the other day he said Harris should be "spat upon."

Harris does not listen to Madden but was made aware of some of the charges Madden made against him and issued a press release last week to defend himself.

"I know that [Madden] supports one of the other licensees," Harris said. "But, because of that, there is no reason for him to attack me and my teammates and try to drive a wedge between us."

Madden denied doing that but didn't back down from Harris.

"He's backs a plan that's best for him, not for Pittsburgh," he said.

Harris, who rejected an overture from Isle of Capri before joining Forest City, disagreed. In his press release, he said, "I was happy to join the Forest City Harrah's team because they are the best and will be the best for Pittsburgh."

In a phone conversation, Harris, was told of the vitriolic statements Madden made about him.

"I know ESPN on a national basis," he said. "There's no way in the world they would condone that kind of stuff. I don't know the local ESPN people. I think it's a shame.

"It's surprising and disgusting they would stoop so low."

It is disgusting, but, if you know Madden, it's not surprising at all.


Post-Gazette sports columnist Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.


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