Gene Collier: Socialism serves fans and billionaires well

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DALLAS -- Growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico, in the 1970s, Andres Martinez magnetized to the role of contrarian, likely because he tired so quickly of his young friends rednecking on the Dallas Cowboys all the time.

He was a Steelers fan, and no amount of subsequent NFL history or education or life experience has changed that. Not Yale, not Stanford, not Columbia Law, and certainly not a journalism career that started at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and soon took him to the opinion pages of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.

"I remember when I told my mother I got a job in Pittsburgh," he said on the phone the other day, "she said, 'Hey, that's like going to Mecca for you.' "

Late last month, before the massive media ramp-up to the Steelers' eighth Super Bowl appearance had its launch codes, Martinez wrote a typically insightful piece for a Los Angeles-based web publication on why the NFL needs, preserves, and nourishes the ancestral tribal traditions of smaller-market Rust Belt cities such as Pittsburgh and Green Bay and Buffalo.

Then, he dealt the S word: socialism.

Usually, socialism is something I'd reflexively shrug off as part of the political sound track of the uber right. President Obama is a socialist, the health-care bill is socialism, if God did not equate socialism with Satanism, why did he make them both start with 's'?

You know the shtick.

But here Martinez asked a pretty stunning question, which essentially was this: Where else in sports can you have the championship contested between teams from America's 22nd largest metro area and its 152nd largest? And have that be the result of a place like Green Bay beating a megalopolis like Chicago, a place like Pittsburgh beating Gotham itself?

"It's just that the NFL seems such an improbable place for socialism to flourish," he said from Washington. "Here you have this club of egocentric billionaires in a cut-throat endeavor, and yet it's football that has kind of perfected this system."

Though it would never say so, the NFL's system thrives on a socialist model in which its monstrous television windfalls are administered by a central authority that distributes it equally to all 32 teams, so that those least advantaged by market size compete evenly with those most advantaged.

"Compare that to the Darwinian capitalism of European soccer," Martinez said. "There are only a handful of teams that can likely win, and much of the attention is on which of the bottom teams are going to be killed off."

From Pittsburgh's vantage point, the contrast is best illuminated by comparing the pervasive global excitement generated by the Steelers' eighth Super Bowl tonight to the disenfranchising capitalism that chokes the Pirates, which is where many in the blogosphere and among the Internet yammerers really started to drive home Martinez's point this week, whether they intended to or not.

On the blog by notorious right-baiter Bill Maher, it came out like this:

"The small market Pittsburgh Steelers go to the Super Bowl more than anybody, but the Pittsburgh Pirates? Levi Johnston has sperm that will not grow up and live long enough to see the Pirates in a World Series. Their payroll is $40 million. The Yankees' is $206 million. The Pirates have as much chance of getting to the playoffs as a poor black teenager from Newark has of becoming the CEO of Halliburton. That's why people stop going to Pirate games in May, because if you're not in the game, you become indifferent to the fate of the game, and maybe even bitter, that's what's happening to the middle class in America."

The mandatory blowback is well under way as a result of that observation, and certainly the middle-class crisis is impacted by many more complex stimuli than those paralleled by the Pirates' lack of pitching (or hitting, or fielding).

But, for the moment, the prevailing urgency on the part of the NFL to validate its small-market traditions, whether by overt socialism, micromanaged capitalism, or dumb luck, has to be appreciated.

"Football ethos, after all, was shaped by cold, broad-shouldered cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland -- cities that loom large in our narrative shared origins," Martinez wrote to trigger this discussion. "This isn't only a question of geography, but also of values. In our elegiac imaginations, America's fading industrial cities embody a back-to-basics work ethic and a determination to overcome adversity."

And, as that old Steelers coach Bill Cowher once asked among his infrequent rhetorical questions, "What is wrong with that?"


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