For the past two weeks, members of Steelers Nation have put aside the unending economic gloom pervading their lives, permitting visions of Super Bowl glory to dance in their heads.
Transforming 60 minutes of football into a two-week orgy of crass commercialism and stupid media tricks may or may not be what the National Football League's guiding lights had in mind. But given the Super Bowl's growth, it is appropriate to consider how much things have changed for Steelers fans over the years, for those who remain within the confines of Ground Zero as well as those who have concluded Pittsburgh is best appreciated from a safe distance.
An appropriate mile marker for this assessment is Jan. 12, 1975, the dawn of Steelers Nation. The Steelers' first Super Bowl appearance occurred in simpler times, as evidenced by the $299 per person Super Bowl package advertised in The Pittsburgh Press. It included airfare to New Orleans, ground transportation, a hotel room and a ticket.
But judging from headlines of the day, the economy hasn't changed all that much since then.
"Recession becoming worst since 1945" screamed the top headline in the Jan. 6, 1975, Press. A few days earlier, the paper chronicled Wall Street's worst year since 1937: a 28 percent drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The U.S. unemployment rate was at a 13-year high of 7.1 percent after 1.1 million Americans lost their jobs the previous two months. The jobless rate in the Pittsburgh region was 6.3 percent.
"This is an economic emergency for America. There must be action at once," AFL-CIO President George Meany said in a United Press International report.
Then, as now, consensus was lacking on what to do about the two-front war on inflation and recession.
Some of the confusion was caused by inept economists whose accuracy "has been as lamentably poor as the news itself," Associated Press analyst John Cunniff wrote in a story the Post-Gazette carried the day before Super Bowl IX. Mr. Cunniff cited a mid-1974 forecast by the National Association of Business Economists: "The slide in economic activity has just about ended and a mild upturn should be underway by yearend or soon thereafter."
Just below an urgent bulletin about Steelers defensive end Dwight White being sent back to the hospital for a viral infection and pleurisy was a UPI story about President Gerald Ford considering a tax cut that would put $445 into the pockets of average Americans. Compare that with the $500 per person, $1,000 per family tax credit President Barack Obama is proposing.
A column by Jane Bryant Quinn questioned the stimulative powers of tax cuts. She quoted pollster Albert Sindlinger, who believed Americans were shopped out after attempting to outrun inflation by purchasing big ticket items.
"All over America, houses are standing vacant because parents have had to move in with children or children haven't been able to afford to leave home ... and it's going to get worse, even with a tax cut," Mr. Sindlinger warned.
Then, as now, Detroit's Big Three were in trouble. UPI reported that Ford was idling 17 of its 23 U.S. assembly plants the week after Super Bowl IX, putting more than half its work force on the unemployment line. "Where do we get all of this scare talk about the auto companies going out of business?" asked syndicated columnist Carl Rowan, who feared the inexorable tide of gloomy headlines "will become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Mellon Bank senior economist Norman Robert felt the same. "The black mood seems all out of proportion to the realities of the situation," he told the PG. "The U.S. economy is still enormously strong."
Carnegie Mellon Professor Stanley W. Angrist also was upbeat. "In my judgment, the worst of this inflationary bout has passed -- and the patient will live," he wrote in a PG story the day before the Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings. Adjacent to his prediction was a story about banks lowering their prime rate to 10 percent.
The next day, the Steelers began a run of winning four Super Bowls in six seasons. Their unprecedented performance gave birth to a new nation, conceived in black and gold and based on the proposition that "One for the Thumb" was Job 1.
In that time period, the prime rate climbed to 20 percent. It took a few more years for the U.S. jobless rate to peak at 10.8 percent in November 1982. Unemployment in the Pittsburgh region topped out two months later at 17.1 percent. By then, U.S. Steel's thinking had changed from the opinion Homestead Works Superintendent Fred R. Smith Jr. expressed in the Jan. 8, 1975, edition of the PG: "There will always be a Homestead Works ..."
In tough times, everyone needs something to sustain them -- "distract them" seems more appropriate for the denizens of Steelers Nation who pay taxes to live here. Unlike the growing number of Steelers fans relocating to more vibrant economies, obsessing on the Steelers takes their minds off the local state of affairs. If things were better here, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl would have better things to do than considering whether to challenge the U.S. Census Bureau on whether Toledo is bigger than Pittsburgh.
Karl Marx was wrong. Religion isn't the opiate of the masses. The Steelers are.
Len Boselovic can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1941.