One White Man’s Burden: A Steelers Fan Struggles with Michael Irvin’s Induction
Here is Stephen’s response to NFL wide receiver Michael Irvin being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend.
I hate Michael Irvin. I always have. He represents everything that I was taught to believe football should not be about. As a Pittsburgher (and, thus, a die-hard Steelers fan), I was taught that when one scores a touchdown, the appropriate action is to hand the ball to the referee (like Franco Harris often did), not to dance as if it’s the first and last time it would happen. I was taught that ball players are role models and should act as such off the field, as well. I was taught that respect for one’s opponent meant not “trash talking” on the field or off. In short, I was taught that people like Michael Irvin are bad for the game of football. But how much of what I was taught was rooted in racial prejudice?
I need to be clear that when I say “taught,” I refer to a football teaching community much larger than my family. My dad was my primary source of football knowledge, and his Harry-Chapin-listening-ass is certainly not bigoted. In Pittsburgh, at least since the 1970s, football is a community event. The malls are virtually empty on game day, the fans come in every shape, size, gender, age and color, and the city is awash in black and gold twelve months out of the year, not just during football season, and not just when the Steelers are doing well. (Tangentially, I’ve always dreamed about writing a paper about social capital in Pittsburgh as a result of all major sports teams having the same team colors – an element of community symbolism not enjoyed by any other city.)
“Teaching” racial prejudice does not happen in the oblique context of the family; it involves tacit and pervasive messages that often work to counter the explicit teachings in the home. So when I learned football, I learned racism. What I learned to privilege is rooted in white, middle-class values (as embraced and passed on by white working-class families who aspired to middle-class status). To be fair, my paternal grandfather was, like many Italian Americans of his generation, bigoted, but more than that, I grew up in a city with deep racial tensions that were seldom manifested in explicit discussions of race. Like the American experience broadly, it constantly bubbled under the surface in the press, pubs and union halls.
So why now, on the eve of his induction into the Pro Football Hall of fame (just two years after he became eligible) do I look at Michael Irvin’s induction with a fresh set of eyes? It’s not that I haven’t thought of him lately. I have thought of him every Sunday for the past four years when I turned on the ESPN pre-game show where he served as an analyst. I hate him because he played for the University of Miami – a program I was raised to believe was illegitimate because of its leniency of players’ conduct and lack of emphasis on academics. I hate him most because he played for the Dallas Cowboys, the nemesis of the Steelers during the 1970 (when the Steelers beat them in two Super Bowls) and later in the 1990s (when they beat the Steelers in a Super Bowl because of a crappy Steelers quarterback who will remain nameless). I hate him because he’s mouthy (uppity?), flashy (if you were one of 17 siblings, you’d probably try to find a way to stand out, too) and immodest. I think I partly hate him because he’s black.
Of course, it will come as no surprise to regular TWIR readers that neither of us equates being black to any of those characteristics. And to be fair, I grew up with distaste for white players who embodied those characteristics, too (Jim McMahon, Bill Romanowski, etc.), but I wonder if “we” didn’t dislike those players because we perceived them as acting too black. In some ways, we had (have) a higher tolerance for black players who veered from the white, middle-class football ethic noted above. We expected black players to act “like that” (read: black). But when they got too good on the field, the behavior became more annoying, and we looked for ways to discredit their accomplishments.
Bill Williamson writes that Irvin may not have made the Hall of Fame in the current era where players are being liberally suspended for off-field behaviors deemed unbecoming to professional athletes. Irvin certainly would have missed significant field time as a result of his involvement with illegal recreational (not performance-enhancing) drugs (he did miss five games in 1996). Even a money-over-principle owner like Jerry Jones may have cut Irvin loose if he wasn’t on the field enough to produce, and other teams may have been reluctant to sign him. His public image couldn’t have suffered much more, but his statistics very well may have.
Of course, this issue is not unrelated to what Barry Bonds (a former and subsequently detested Pittsburgh athlete who claimed he suffered from racism in the city – hmmmm.) is facing on the brink of his record-breaking performance. We have been waiting patiently for two weeks for him to do it so that we could blog on it. But he hasn’t, so we can’t. As the talk continues about Bonds, though, we ask readers to reflect on this offering and consider how much of our dislike for Bonds is racial and how much is legitimately about his cheating and/or his grumpiness toward sports writers. Maybe we can convince Mark McGwire to guest blog in this space next week.