I am a fan of the game of professional football. I am a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s been my team since the early 1970’s. My affection for the team was born of a rivalry with a dear cousin who had pledged his football soul to the Minnesota Vikings and the Purple People Eaters. He taught me most of what I knew about the game: players, teams, formations, terminology. For him, it was all about Sir Francis (Tarkenton), Sammy White, Ahmad Rashad, and Chuck Foreman. We both felt like we’d lost a loved one when Drew Pearson caught that Hail Mary pass back in ’75. Still, I liked the team with the black uniforms and the black helmet and the logo on just one side. I liked Terry Bradshaw and Jack Lambert and Joe Greene and Mel Blount and Lynn Swann and Franco Harris. I even liked Frenchy Fuqua. What a name! Maybe it was as simple as just liking the team that could beat the Cowboys.My long-distance membership in Steelers Nation (I was born in the Boogie Down Bronx; raised in the Black Mecca (Harlem, USA)) has always been a source of pride. During my formative years, the Giants and Jets showed a peculiar disinterest in winning football games or fielding competitive teams. (These are strange days with Santonio Holmes arriving in New York in exchange for a mere 5th round pick.) I suppose my intuition simply rejected rooting for a team that didn’t put forth the requisite effort to actually win the game.
The Jets won 10 games and a Super Bowl in 1969. They wouldn’t win 10 games again until 1981. From 1975-1977, the Jets won a total of 3 games EACH SEASON. There was no chance that I would surrender my childhood to a team this miserable. In fact, I’d venture to say that most New Yorkers who are Jet fans became so after watching Namath’s exploits vs. the Colts or inherited their faith from someone who did. The Giants weren’t much better. From 1973-1980, the Giants never won more than 6 games in a season. They had two seasons in which they amassed 2 wins; two seasons with 4 wins; two seasons with 5 wins; and, two seasons with 6 wins. So, the fact that I embraced a team from outside of New York City to feed my fascination with football is not the least bit surprising. Futility has never been attractive to me.
I created the ultimate long-distance relationship. To be sure, being a Steelers fan had benefits. The Miami Dolphins’ day in the sun was over. The Raiders were the toughest foe in the AFC, but the arch enemy were the Dallas Cowboys. (I actually liked the Raiders.) So many of my closest friends were seduced by the glamour of the Cowboys: the funky stadium, Tom Landry’s fedora, the uniforms, the synchronized up and down movement of their offensive line before the snap, the voices of Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier (before Madden) on national telecasts, and, of course, those inimitable cheerleaders. There was no greater thrill than the Steelers beating the Cowboys twice in the Super Bowl. I STILL HAVE BRAGGING RIGHTS and it’s 2010.
There was one other thing that happened long ago.
One day, my grandfather was out and about in the city and obtained for me, an autographed 8 1/2″ x 11″ photo of Steelers running back and Hall of Famer Franco Harris. And that sealed the deal for life. This long-distance relationship with this team of ours (el equipo nuestro) has not always been sealed with first place kisses and championships. After the fourth championship victory of the surprisingly tough Los Angeles Rams (remember Vince Ferragamo?), the Steelers would go a “Detroit Lionesque” 26 years before winning another Super Bowl. But once you’re in the Nation, you never leave. Besides, where are you going? Cleveland?
It was during these 26 years, as much as in the previous 6, that the true character of the franchise was revealed. Pittsburgh is still a small city by today’s standards. Once Bradshaw and company departed and gave way to the likes of Cliff Stoudt and Mark Malone, the Steelers continued to field a competitive team. Steeler Nation didn’t wither and die. It grew. Even with Bill Cowher’s many losses in the AFC Championship game, at home to lesser opponents, while using staid, predictable game plans gleaned from Marty Schottenheimer during their tenure together in Kansas City — exhale — even with that, Steeler Nation didn’t diminish. And that says a great deal. The team tends to stand for something larger than itself. The team is perceived to symbolize stability, excellence and reliability. In today’s sports world, it means that this team will not be held hostage in a contract negotiation; will not forego tradition to build quick fix solutions through free agency or trades; and will offer fair compensation for performance. For many fans, that’s enough because these values mirror sustainable life values and over four decades, many generations of fans have seen this cycle repeated each season.
For me, there are two realities. One, forged during childhood, is of a team that has demonstrated a relentless commitment to winning. The other, through the eyes of an adult who has been a cynic a time or two, is of real flesh and blood men who do things at night that do not always mesh with what men say during the day. Only children, geniuses, and idiots continue to believe that things are exactly as they seem. I stand here as the father of twins, aspiring to reach my 42nd birthday, knowing that I am neither child, genius or idiot. I know that things are not as they seem.
I will not recount the long history of this franchise because it is well-known and widely available in other forums. I will, however, say that is must be borne in mind that this franchise and the Rooney family have deep financial ties in the horse racing industry — and have had them for decades. The team was purchased with winnings from the Sport of Kings. Ownership of legal racing and gambling establishments is not concrete evidence of wrongdoing, but it does suggest something.
Over the past few years, the Steelers have been involved in some of the most bizarre games I can recall. Like the New York Yankees and Duke Blue Devils, the officials always seem to figure prominently in the outcome. When the Steelers play, you can bet, literally, that the NFL will be making a statement about the officiating.
- 2005. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Indianapolis Colts. Troy Polamalu clearly intercepts a Peyton Manning pass that would have ended the comeback bid of the Colts. The call is overturned by the officials and the Colts begin an historic comeback that is only thwarted by a desperation tackle by Ben Roethlisberger.
- 2005. Seattle Seahawks at Pittsburgh Steelers. The Seahawks came into this game with a superior game plan and superior execution. If the game had been officiated well, the Steelers might have been looking at a 17 point deficit at the start of the 2nd half. Missed passed interference calls and questionable spotting of the ball at the goal line were critical to the Steelers victory.
- 2008. San Diego Chargers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers. Troy Polamalu, again, clearly intercepts a pass from Philip Rivers and returns it for a touchdown in a closely contested game. The call is overturned and instead of a spread-covering 18-10 win, the Steelers fail to cover the spread and survive by the unique score of 11-10. This is the only time an NFL game has ended with that score. The game was heavily bet (so much so that articles were written in papers before the game.)
- 2008. Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers and Ravens always play knock down, drag out, final gun games. The teams are the fiercest of rivals and the games are always tight. In this game, Santonio Holmes caught a game-winning touchdown in the most controversial fashion. League officials ruled, to the consternation of the entire city of Baltimore, that Holmes established possession in the end zone (in an instant) and scored a legal touchdown. The rules under which that catch was deemed legal have since been changed.
- 2008. Arizona Cardinals at Pittsburgh Steelers. This Super Bowl may have been one of the worst officiated games in league memory. Surely the 2005 Super Bowl is a worthy competitor. James Harrison committed a retaliatory personal foul by punching a Cardinals player. Neither player was ejected. Several calls were missed on both sides of the ball, but perhaps none were bigger than the “Excessive Celebration” penalty that should have been whistled on Santonio Holmes after his 6-yard reception in the endzone.
These are just a few of the games over the past few years. I haven’t even discussed those epic games with the Houston Oilers (Luv Ya Blue) or the Tennessee Titans or the conference championship games vs. the New England Patriots. There are many more, but that is a topic for another time. I don’t believe the Steelers get the calls in every game; they most certainly do not. However, it seems as though the betting line is consistently a factor in games where officiating is a cause of concern.
Gambling is part of the reality of the NFL. Organized crime is a part of the reality of gambling. An organized crime has always been a part of the reality of professional sports, especially football and horse racing. The Rooney family owns the top horse racing – casino (racino) venture in the nation. The entity had revenues of $486 million. According to the American Gaming Association (AGA), in 2007, commercial casinos had over $32 billion in revenue.
The Rooney’s are just one of many families with deep, extensive ties to horse racing. Right? This, to me, is profoundly significant because of the confluence of three factors: the deep tentacles of organized criminals in the business of horse racing; the impact of gambling on the bottom line of the NFL and horse racing; and, the popular image of the Rooney family as being paragons of virtue. The AGA suggests this is all a thing of the past. The Association would argue that a great deal has been done to sever those relationships since the 1950’s and make use of technology to prevent crime. There are a number of controls established to preclude money laundering and extortion. However, there are a handful of professionals in this field who would beg to differ. At the end of the day, I’m not sure that evidence of Rooney virtue is as abundant as is evidence of Rooney philanthropy.
For quite some time in America, rich and powerful families have operated on the principle that honey can work as well as vinegar. Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was known for his ruthlessness, but his philanthropic legacy (for ulterior motives?) is nearly unmatched. So, it would require a tremendous stretch of the imagination to believe that the Steelers are who they say they are. The Rooney’s give as good as they get.
From Patrick Rooney, during an interview for an article on the prospective sale of team shares:
Even if they go separate ways on the Steelers, the sons and grandchildren of Rooney Inc. retain a quiet pride linked to the way the family patriarch, who died in 1988, signed off on his personal letters to each of them: “Keep the Faith.”
According to grandson Pat Rooney Jr., that admonition not only reminds the clan of their strong Roman Catholic upbringing, it reinforces a message about Irish blood loyalty to family and it remains the unspoken business mantra for three generations of The Chief’s kin, most of whom will never live in the North Side. It underscores why the brothers remain diehard fans of the Steelers and stakeholders in each other’s companies, even after moving away and starting large, extended families of their own.
It also frames heart-breaking decisions the elder Rooneys are debating about the core enterprise, the Steelers, perhaps punting the team so the youngest Rooneys can take their seats on an ever-widening bench.
“A part of who I am, my very being, is that I was born a Rooney,” Patrick Rooney Jr. said. “It’s more than a name. It goes to how we behave, how we conduct ourselves in public. I will always be a Steelers fan. I will always live and die, like any other fan, with the Steelers. That’s the way the whole family is.”
For the second generation of Rooneys — a clan that included in Pittsburgh their first cousins, the McGinleys — ownership didn’t mean entitlement. They and the McGinleys started at the bottom. They worked.
“Everyone who has an ownership in sports worked there as a teenager,” said attorney John R. McGinley Jr. “It was probably everyone’s first job. I did it. I lined fields and did laundry, and picked up players and drove them to the airport and got to know them. We’re all football nuts. At least in our family, football was the thread that tied everybody together. It was kind of like the Sunday family gathering. Going to games was our version of that.”
Even though they’re successful in other professions today, the Rooneys and the McGinleys re-enact a family ritual inside Heinz Field before each home game. They meet and greet inside a luxury box, then make their ways into the stands to be closer to the fans.
But there is more to it than that. The Ruanaidh (Gaelic transliteration of Rooney), like the Mara’s (owners of the New York Giants), are an old school Irish clan with roots at the track. There is something to be said for Depression Era hustle in teeming, grimy cities. Achieving and sustaining success is never easy, and the facts of that success can offend. What does it take to run a profitable gambling enterprise for four decades in New York and Florida? What did it take for Eddie DeBartolo, Jr.? “Eddie D.” won five Super Bowls and built a model franchise in San Francisco, yet lost it all when he paid the governor of Louisiana a $400,000 bribe for a casino license. Are the Rooney’s all that different?
I don’t know, but I’m not taking anyone’s word for it. I know that Dan Rooney is the Ambassador to Ireland and that he campaigned with Franco Harris and others for President Barack Obama. What else do I know? Not much, except this:
While the Steelers remain the most secretive part of the family’s major holdings, public records filed in Pennsylvania, New York and Florida show the Rooney brothers have commercial interests that go beyond the gridiron and often are tied directly to gambling.
Even as the Steelers battled Majestic Star Casino’s debut on the North Shore over traffic congestion — a key reason slots license-holder Don Barden cites for failing to get enough money for the project — the five Rooney brothers sought to expand their own wagering interests in New York and Florida. Steelers chairman Dan Rooney was listed on Florida filings up to last year as chief financial officer of the family’s greyhound racing track in West Palm Beach.
Patrick J. Rooney, CEO for the Palm Beach Kennel Club, was unavailable for comment. John Rooney’s name appeared on a state filing this year with the title of chief financial officer, and all five brothers are listed on a separate filing as officers in the track’s holding company.
The Rooneys’ common ownership of the Steelers, a casino, harness track and dog track apparently violates the NFL’s anti-gambling rules. Both the team and the league cited that common ownership as a reason for breaking up the family business.
With dogs, simulcasting of races and a high-stakes poker room, the kennel club reported total revenues of $34 million last year and claimed assets worth $18 million. It paid out nearly $6 million to shareholders in 2007, according to a filing with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Still, the Rooneys have hoped to make the track more profitable.
The family has been trying — unsuccessfully, so far — to convince state lawmakers to legalize slot machines at the track. The track’s parent company, the Investment Corporation of Palm Beach, reported $723,076 in political contributions and lobbying fees for last year.
A Rooney subsidiary, Doghouse One, maintains a condominium 417 miles away in Tallahassee, where many of those political contributions ended up.
The Rooneys are known for their tenaciousness. It took three tries to get their poker room licensed in Florida, but they did it and now it drives revenue. If they get slots, the Rooneys plan to expand the track with shops and restaurants, a hotel and a jai-alai fronton — creating an entertainment zone they would link by monorail to nearby Palm Beach International Airport, where they own a pub.
Without slots, the Rooneys have mulled scaling back, perhaps reserving space for rental car companies or a flea market — like the one operated for 20 years by Timothy at the Yonkers, N.Y., harness racing track before it became a victim to casino expansion.
Even though they couldn’t convince the Florida Legislature to approve their slots bid, the dog track came in handy when the brothers won a casino license at their New York track. The Florida company put up $38 million in letters of credit to guarantee the completion of the Yonkers’ expansion. Although the money was never drawn down, the dog track is due $328,961 for providing the service.
In New York, the introduction of 5,339 slot machines — called “video lottery terminals” by state regulators — returned the sleepy venue nestled amid 13 million people to a big-time wagering destination. Renamed Empire City at Yonkers Raceway, the casino lured $5 billion in wagers in its first 12 months of operations last year. By comparison, the harness operation netted $73 million in bets.
Five billion reasons to sell. But back in 1972, the picture wasn’t so clear.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had 7 winning seasons from 1933 through 1971. During that time, the Steelers were like the St. Louis-Phoenix-Arizona Cardinals under the Bidwell regime or the Detroit Lions under the Ford family. The team had no intention of winning. It was not a priority. Art Rooney, Sr. had other priorities and other means of generating income to feed his five boys. Those other means of income facilitated a $52 million in 1972. That’s five times the sale price of the New York Yankees by CBS to George Steinbrenner’s group in 1973.
Something changed in the years leading up to 1972. From the outside, it looks like the Rooney’s under the leadership of Dan (like Michael Corleone), figured out a means to obtain steady revenue streams, and retain a family business that added immeasurable political clout. To track the trajectory of this move, consider that the Steelers were not regarded as anything similar to the Bears or Giants or Packers or Browns in the old NFL. On some level, the rise of this team would be as remarkable as the sleepy Detroit Lions suddenly rising to prominence on the wings of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Of course, the Lions would not only have to emerge from their endless summer of folly, but they’d have to remain relevant for until, oh, say 2050.
It seems preposterous.
And, yet, this is the equivalent of what has transpired in Pittsburgh over the past four decades.
The man with the master plan in Pittsburgh is, and has been, Dan Rooney. He is the architect of this masterpiece and the foundation of this work are seemlessly consistent. He is credited with hiring Chuck Noll to coach the team in 1969. He is also credited with carving out a relationship with Bill Nunn, Sr. (father of the actor, Bill Nunn, Jr., aka “Radio Raheem“) to identify and sign talent from traditionally black colleges and universities. Bill Nunn compiled annual All-American football lists of Black college football players for the black-owned and operated Pittsburgh Courier.
Noll brought coaching schemes inspired by the legendary Don Shula, and Nunn cast a spotlight on players like Greene and Greenwood and Blount. The Steelers made their mark at schools like Penn State with Harris and Jack Ham, and at USC with Swann, but many of the dynasty’s best players hailed from small schools like North Texas (Greene), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Greenwood), Kent State (Lambert), Saginaw Valley State (Blount), and Alabama A&M (Stallworth). It was this unique mix of acumen and athleticism that combined to elevate the franchise.
Dan Rooney began his adult tenure with the team by working in personnel. Together with Noll, Nunn and others, the new Steelers way was crafted. The formula which endured through 2008 (more or less) remained unchanged: dominating defense, power running game, vertical passing attack. During the Steelers best years, they’ve been able to throw deep consistently with elite wide receivers making spectacular grabs from less than orthodox passers. During the lean years, the defense and running game allowed the team to remain competitive and contend for Super Bowls. Even the mainstays of teams featuring the likes of Bubby Brister and Mark Malone were anchored by defense and power running. When the 1984 San Francisco 49ers marched through the season to an 18-1 record, the only place they stumbled was at home against the Steelers.
Rooney’s legacy, though, is perhaps greatest in that space somewhere between the sideline and the owner’s box. His alliance with Nunn blazed a path (traveled less successfully by others) to traditionally colleges. One of the more fortuitous signings for a team and a player was that free agent deal struck in 1977 with a young Tony Dungy. Three decades later, the team is being led by a Dungy protege, Mike Tomlin. The signing of Joe Geene in 1969 was significant. He wasn’t the first Black player drafted in league history or that season (that honor went to Orenthal James Simpson), but he was the first cornerstone Black player drafted on defense to anchor a legendary franchise. Willie Brown fulfilled that role for the Green Bay Packers, but he was a 15th round selection of the Cleveland Browns in 1958. Buck Buchanan was arguably the greatest defensive player of his era, and was selected number 1 overall in the first round of the AFL Draft. The Chiefs won a Super Bowl, but did not establish a dynasty under Hank Stram. Joe Greene was the first Black defensive player who was transformed from menacing to mild without sacrificing his dignity. There was no buffoonery with Greene…no running through airports hurdling luggage…no fearsome faces blind to the lines beyond the game. The top overall selection of the 1967 NFL draft, Michigan State’s Bubba Smith didn’t anchor a dynasty either, but he did go commercial. Smith’s extensive career in Hollywood paved the way for many others to follow in his footsteps. Greene never went down that path; and he didn’t make you laugh either. I’ve always respected that.
Greene established a tradition of power and dignity that seemed to epitomize the franchise. He was, for me, the face of the franchise to a greater extent than Bradshaw or Harris. He was the one in the timeless Coca-Cola commercial, though I’d have liked that commercial a great deal more if they’d sought out a young Black child from the Hill to have that cold one. Back in the days before Black draft picks and professional scouts and head coaches and presidents, the Hill was the place to be in Pittsburgh, at least according to no less of an authority than Claude McKay. Still, times have changed.
A few years ago (2003), Dan Rooney’s work resulted in what is known as The Rooney Rule. The rule was intended to increase the opportunities of Black and so-called “non-white” candidates to interview for positions of leadership across the NFL. Over the past three seasons, the rule has met with increasing criticism as teams have found ways to circumvent the spirit of the rule. The hiring of Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan has been widely cited as evidence of loopholes in the implementation of the rule.
Dan Rooney’s football legacy is as impressive as it is broad. Perhaps it is a mere coincidence that the rise of this franchise coincides precisely with the family’s ownership of one of the nation’s most lucrative horse racing operations. Perhaps it is evidence of orchestration at the highest levels and implicates generations of owners, coaches, officials, broadcasters and reporters. I can’t say for sure. I can say that the Kansas City Chiefs had billionaire Hunt brothers financing their run…and that brothers have been implicated in far greater intrigue than any Rooney. I can say the same of ownership in Dallas and San Francisco and New York and San Diego and Baltimore and St. Louis. Gambling is front and center in all things NFL. Nonetheless, the record is the record. Four decades of consistent winning, six Super Bowl titles, and a public reputation for doing this the right way. Are the Steelers worse morally than the “Don’t Worry, We’ll Hide Hoffa” Giants? I don’t believe so. Are they worse than the pack up at midnight Indianapolis-Baltimore Colts or the Cleveland-Baltimore Ravens? Not a chance. Are they better than the New England Patriots? Surely they are!! (wink!) I don’t believe they’re any better when it comes to morality, but the Steelers have laid claim to a narrative that tends to sell if for no other reason than people like fables.
For centuries, this nation masqueraded as a slave-holding democracy…and very few people believed the contradiction was sufficient to end compulsory servitude. Even today, our schools systems continue this delusion by masking, ignoring and falsifying the history of those enslaved Africans. So, it should come as no surprise that a group of Irish Catholics (two groups known the world over for story-telling) should have concocted a grand fable of moral superiority all while presiding over a billion dollar gambling empire that feeds addiction and crime. That this fable entangles two sports in which performance enhancing drugs are essential; where wagers rule the day; and criminal networks are always circulating like so many vultures simply should not be a revelation. Nonetheless, in America, it comes not as mere news, but as a shockwave.
More to come in Part II.