Why Dan Rooney fell for Obama

Steelers' boss, a lifelong Republican, took a chance in being so public

On the night of Jan. 3, 2008, little more than two weeks after the Steelers were beaten up at home by Jacksonville and little less than two days before they were to confront the Jaguars again in the first round of the National Football League playoffs, the club's normally unruffled chairman found himself unable to sleep.

Around midnight, Daniel M. Rooney picked up the phone and rang his son Jim.

"This is the greatest speech I've seen since John Kennedy," Dan said into the phone. "This guy connects with people like no one I've seen since John Kennedy. He convinced me that this is more than just a good politician. I want to stand up and say something for this guy. I want to be involved in this."

Mr. Rooney, a lifelong Republican, had just finished watching long-shot Democratic candidate Barack Obama thank voters in Iowa, where the Illinois senator returned the opening kickoff of America's overlong, convoluted presidential campaign for a touchdown against political stalwarts Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards, in a state that's more than 92 percent white.

That his father would be eager to talk politics at odd hours or that he would be moved by the triumph of an African American against systemic or raw political obstacles did not surprise Jim Rooney -- the NFL doesn't call the requirement that NFL teams with head coaching vacancies interview a minority candidate the Rooney Rule for nothing -- but Jim knew almost instantly that what he was hearing on the phone from the family's North Side home that night was more than his father's basic chord structure.

"There was just a visceral connection between my father and Obama," Jim said. "He loved how enthusiastic young people were getting for him, and when you get to my father's age [76], you start to hope the future is bright for generations beyond. Obama, to my father, was just so fresh. Colin Powell used the term 'transformational figure' to describe him, and my father had a strong sense of that a year ago.

"My father is not satisfied with the idea that we went to war for reasons that don't exist or aren't pertinent. My father is a lifelong Republican, but he's become disillusioned with how deeply they have aligned themselves with this ultra-conservative movement.

"But the biggest thing has been, by far, Obama himself, because he just seems to always be looking to learn from every situation. He really has an interest in finding the best scenario, and that is the perspective my father always seeks. What is the good in any situation? My father's always trying to find the positive; it's the way he's done things in the coaches he's picked, even in his support for Commissioner [Roger] Goodell. He tries to take his time and discern things and to empathize with all the characters involved.

"These are all things my father has attributed to solid, long-term leadership, and that's why the visceral connection."

An accidental bonding

Jim Rooney did not suspect that night that his father would, over the course of the next 10 months, not only make his way to the deep end of the campaign pool, but ultimately engage in some very public splashing that broiled portions of his usual audience, but he knew from experience how unforgiving and exploitive campaigns could be. An unsuccessful candidate for the state Senate in 2001, the younger Rooney learned firsthand that elections can be too narrowly focused to entertain perspective, much less something so complicated and delicate as legacy.

But on April 14, Dan Rooney's involvement almost accidentally absorbed a fateful inertia, and somewhere inside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center that day, it crossed an invisible point of no return.

"They met at the convention center, at a conference on steel manufacturing, the labor unions, the companies involved; it was very interesting," Jim Rooney said. "Obama was there, and he'd been briefed about my father, but he'd known who he was. At the same time, Hillary [Clinton] was coming in to the convention center, and the campaign managers did not want them to be near the same photo-op, so we ended up getting basically lost, or detoured, around the convention center for 50 minutes.

"The whole time, Obama spoke to my father. I mean meaningful conversations about different things. There was a bond there, and you could see the development of mutual respect. My father really appreciated that. That day, he announced his support."

Metaphorically at least, the Rooneys walked out of the convention center into a minefield. Dan Rooney had only been involved in one political campaign in his life, and that was Jim's, and it was, as Dan would say on the stump, "only because I had to."

Moreover, it was not without risk that the patriarch of Pittsburgh's most prominent family, and effectively the president of Steeler Nation, such as it is, would openly endorse a political candidate. On top of that, Dan Rooney, a devout Catholic, staunchly anti-abortion, was about to help drive the bus for a candidate who was unequivocally behind abortion rights.

Though Jim Rooney's role would evolve, as well as toward other things, into an intense effort to keep his father's support for Mr. Obama from carrying the Steelers' imprimatur, that part of the well-intentioned strategy crashed spectacularly Oct. 27, when Dan presented Mr. Obama with a black Steelers jersey before the candidate's final Pittsburgh appearance at Mellon Arena.

"Shame on you!" Virginia Peters Baird e-mailed from Scottsdale, Ariz. "I was born in Pittsburgh and raised in McKeesport. My father was a Steeler fan from the word 'go' and raised me the same. My father was, as I am, a conservative Republican, as, I might add, are a few million other Steeler fans. I cannot speak for them, but I will never watch another Steeler game!!... I pay $250 to Direct TV so that I can get every game, every week, and have for years. I will have a bonfire of all my Steeler possessions and request that my 18-year-old grandson do likewise.

"I will consider Oct. 27 the day something dear to me died."

While other precincts reported slightly lesser degrees of outrage, the general aggravation focused on the evident symbolism.

"Dan Rooney is no different than anyone else and he's entitled to support the candidate of his choice, but he's not entitled to drape a Steeler shirt across Barack Obama," John McGrail said on the phone from Arkansas in the days before the election. "The impression is that we, the Steeler Nation, support Barack Obama and let me tell you, there are many of us who don't. But that was the message.

"I was shocked. I grew up in Oakland and I love the Steelers, and this is not going to change my opinion of them. But now, I really don't care if Dan keeps the team. He doesn't deserve it, and his father would be spinning in his grave."

'Conscience is clear'

That the historically momentous Obama campaign would heat up in the very summer when Rooney family ownership of the Steelers would endure such severe external and internal turbulence somehow never became too intense a narrative for Dan Rooney.

"I don't want to be flippant about it," Dan Rooney said Wednesday in a conference room at the team's South Side training complex, "but I, as an individual, have a right to back a candidate. The guy who runs Wal-Mart, isn't he allowed to have an opinion? The Steelers as an organization do not get involved in politics, but that does not mean that people in the organization can't get involved in political activities, which are part of democracy. As for the jersey, our marketing department hands out jerseys all the time.

"When I get criticized on the pro-life thing, well, that's a lot more important than someone calling up and saying, 'Look, don't give the jersey away.' I'm a pro-life Catholic. I think abortion is wrong. But I'm not a one-issue voter, and Sen. Obama has pledged to help reduce the number of abortions. I've talked to people in the church about it, and my conscience is clear on this."

Dan Rooney's foray into what some would characterize as a fairly strong political position might be uncommon for a sports executive, but that's mostly in its visibility. Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle has raised millions of dollars for the presidential campaigns of both Bill and Hillary Clinton. Penguins CEO David Morehouse worked in the Al Gore campaign in 2000 and was a senior campaign adviser to Sen. John F. Kerry four years later. Neither would comment for this story, nor would Pirates CEO Frank Coonelly.

Though sports management represents by itself a relatively new academic field, Dan Rooney's open political endorsement in this case can be seen as having no applicable template.

"Dan Rooney had an obligation to step into this situation," said Dr. John Lanasa, chairman for marketing and sports marketing at Duquesne University's School of Business. "Wasn't it Dan Rooney who helped institute the Rooney Rule?

"This has to be judged in the larger perspective, not just in a sports or a business perspective. The majority of the chief executive officers of companies in Pittsburgh would support John McCain. Is that any different than Dan Rooney supporting his candidate? If anything, he's supporting his candidate on bigger issues; it's different than just saying, 'I support this guy because he's best for my business.'

"He's saying, 'I support this guy because he's good for the country in general.' Most people can understand that sports and politics are two different things. Is somebody not going to go to the games because Dan supported Obama? I don't think so. Just like in Philadelphia, where the owners of the Flyers had Sarah Palin drop the puck before a game, are their fans going to hold that against Flyers ownership? I don't think so."

To whatever practical extent his father's prominence stung some portion of the club's frothing customers, Jim Rooney has long understood its significance in strictly personal terms.

"It's something he chose to get involved with and from my standpoint it has a lot to do with his legacy, and that's something that's important to me," he said. "His support of Obama is much more macro than micro; it's based on themes and not specific policy initiatives. There are a lot of things on which he disagrees with Obama. But he sees those themes as universal and critical.

"The campaign asked us to do just about every activity under the sun, but not all of them made sense for my father. I really had to step in there, sometimes at the dismay of the campaign, but the first goal for me was to see my father connect with his passion and not to get involved with short-term things that don't respect the long-term commitment he's made to this region."

Wednesday at Steelers headquarters, where backup quarterback Byron Leftwich and Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy [via conference call] eloquently expressed the profound implications to African Americans of having Barack Obama win the presidency, Dan Rooney had lunch in the team's cafeteria, as he does most every day.

As he got up to leave, an African American server, a woman who's likely arranged his plate hundreds of times, came out from behind the corner, shook his hand, and gave him a hug.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com First Published November 9, 2008 5:00 AM


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