Clarke Thomas: Calling on Steeler Nation
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They moved away from Pittsburgh but left their hearts behind. That is the basis of the "Steeler Nation," which runs deeper than the Red Sox Nation and other such groups of loyalists.
Clarke Thomas is a Post-Gazette senior editor (email@example.com).
Why and wherefore? That was the subject of a fascinating discussion recently staged by the Battle of Homestead Foundation at its Pump House landmark building on the Homestead waterfront. It was built around a DVD version of the National Football League film, "Steeler Nation," shown just once on cable last November and never heard of since. Those taking part included Sally Wiggin of WTAE-TV, Dr. Barbara Johnstone of Carnegie Mellon University and Dr. Charles McCollester of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
The quick answer provided by Dr. McCollester is that the Steeler Nation is composed of Pittsburgh's blue-collar industrial diaspora, many of the more than 100,000 union workers who left in the 1980s when the steel mills and other manufacturing industries closed and put 140,000 people out of work. Dr. McCollester, director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, feels that the Steelers' string of Super Bowl victories in the 1970s just before the collapse of the steel industry provided a point of pride for tens of thousands of Pittsburghers who were later displaced -- even though the Steelers didn't win another Super Bowl until 2006. The team represents the "blue-collar ethic of hard work, self-sacrifice, loyalty and teamwork," he said.
The major evidence of the Steeler diaspora is an organization called Steeler Fans United, headed by Nick Nery of Pittsburgh. Its Web site (snu.steelershotline.com) lists 50 fan clubs stretching from Tacoma and Phoenix to London, including seven in Florida, six in Virginia and, yes, clubs in Boston and New York City.
Instead of the usual Steeler discussion about the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, the Pump House conversation veered more into sociology.
Mike Stout brought up the "spirituality" of metal-working, where workers depend upon each other for safety and success. Mr. Stout, the United Steelworkers head grievance man at the Homestead Works in its final years and now a print-shop owner, said this factor is true for police, firefighters and soldiers, whose behavior can affect the well-being of their comrades. He thought Pittsburghers found this same sense of solidarity in the cohesiveness of Steeler teams. Others mentioned that the rough-tough perception of steelworkers seemed to be reflected in the bruising image of the Blitzburgh Steelers.
Dr. Johnstone, a professor of rhetoric and linguistics, said the unusual Pittsburgh dialect -- "Dahntahn," "redd-up," "Stillers" -- also may account for ex-Pittsburghers seeking each other out in Steeler fan clubs.
Ms. Wiggin commented that the plant closings of the 1980s were so sudden the community was unprepared. "There was no time to fix things. Everyone left; no one came back in." That led to a discussion of Pittsburgh attitudes, as reflected in Steelermania. Did the sudden need to change foster nostalgia and a reluctance to change? Has there been a continued resistance to what is happening in the rest of the world, summarized in the term "globalization"?
Dr. Kenneth Thompson, a Pitt psychiatrist, said Pittsburghers too often "feel looked down upon," leading to a defensive attitude that may make it difficult to welcome "outsiders" who can bring to Pittsburgh the type of diversity needed in the new technological age.
But if this is the past, what is the future? That leads me to another recent discussion I attended, sponsored by the Harrisburg-based Education Policy and Leadership Center. Headed by former legislator Ron Cowell, the center's mission is "to encourage and support the use of more effective state-level education policies to improve student learning."
The program featured Dr. Irwin S. Kirsch from the Washington-based Educational Testing Service, speaking on the topic, "America's Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation's Future." I won't go into detail on the three forces -- an uneven distribution of skills, a rapidly changing economy and demographic trends -- as they can be found on the Internet at ets.org/stormreport. But my take on what Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh should be doing includes three suggestions.
First, the state Legislature should approve Gov. Rendell's $75 million package for pre-kindergarten education. Study after study shows the importance in this era of working moms and teenage moms of preparing 3- and 4-year-olds for school. One Kirsch statistic underlined it: "40 percent of births in the U.S. today are to mothers without a high school or post-secondary degree."
Second, we need to rework adult education to provide better "second chance" training for school dropouts, teenage mothers, etc.
Third, despite a culture which rightly emphasizes the value of a college education, we need to persuade many parents and students of the virtues of vocational skills training at the high school and post-secondary levels. This would allow us to fill needed technical jobs that provide the sort of middle-income standard of living that steelworkers once enjoyed.
Of course, these are mind-altering and, yes, tax-requiring paths to the future that the notoriously change-resistant Steeler Nation, in a broader sense than just sports fans, should support.
First Published June 5, 2007 5:51 pm