WASHINGTON -- As a Pittsburgh native it pains me to say this but here goes: Even if the Steelers win the Super Bowl, they've already lost.
Fate, fashion and their own faults combine to put the Steelers in a no-win situation in Sunday's matchup with the Green Bay Packers.
The Steelers are the bad guys. There is nothing they can do about it. If they win, it's because they are rotten and brutal, or so it will be said. If they lose, they will have deserved it, because they are rotten and brutal, or so it will be said.
Why? Well, let's start where we must, with Big Ben. His actions last year in that Georgia college town -- even though they didn't result in criminal charges -- are too awful for most of the country, and (still) for many people in Pittsburgh, to stomach. Where diehard Steelers fans see a brave quarterback, millions of others see a cowardly, spoiled kid who used his posse to assist his sexual predations.
No amount of holy water sprinkled by the Rooneys can absolve him. And no amount of smiling for the cameras will put Ben Roethlisberger in the same likability league with Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, who runs like a thoroughbred, who throws like Elway, who has the long, sad visage of a French count, and who went to Berkeley.
Then there is the "dirty play" issue. This is, in my view, a completely phony charge, but the Steelers themselves have made their situation worse with their words. I know football and I know that Pittsburgh does NOT play a different or more violent game. It's just that they are better and more focused at it, and they rose to prominence via ferocious defense and frightening pictures of a toothless Jack Lambert.
The Steelers were in the wrong place at the wrong time when Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose father was an anti-war congressman, decided suddenly to express late-in-the-day concern about rough play in the NFL, even as the league was selling videos of its greatest "hits."
James Harrison and Hines Ward, two of the toughest men ever to play the game, made the mistake of taking issue with Goodell and the league. Now they are being portrayed as evil, soulless dudes who don't care if they concuss themselves or give concussions to others. They are seen, at best, as pathetic, indentured gladiators sacrificing their brains for the sake of a big paycheck.
The tougher the Steelers play on Sunday, the less they will be liked no matter what the score is. If, say, Harrison puts Rodgers on the ground, all the talk will be about whether it was a legal hit, not whether it was a great play.
The New Yorker just ran a story about whether football should be banned because of head and other injuries, and the debilitating long-term effects of the game on the health of retired players. This was a cultural milestone of sorts, in that the New Yorker actually ran an article about pro football. (Other than the piece by Malcolm Gladwell about football and head injuries, from October 2009).
It seems as though the Steelers, the greatest franchise in football history, mastered a sport that is now entering a long twilight of controversy, regret and second guesses.
The forces of political correctness are about to add professional football -- at least as played by the Steelers, which is to say, with passionate intensity -- to a long list of shunned activities and products that includes smoking, pepperoni, guns, fur, meat, salt, hunting with scoped rifles and the stock market.
President Obama says he has "some love" for the Steelers. Fine. I will believe him if he gets out there and defends them. After all, Steelers fans are folks who cling to their guns and their religion -- their religion being the Steelers.
The Steelers have also won too much to be beloved. I can sympathize with this. In America, success breeds admiration -- and then jealousy and contempt. People were looking for reasons to root against the Steelers, and the Steelers and Goodell gave them some.
Finally, there is the national media. I know more about the national media than I do football. I am, not always proudly, part of it and have been for a long time. (There aren't many of us from Pittsburgh, by the way.) And I can tell that the national media is totally against the Steelers.
Why? It's fairly simple. The Lamestream Sports Media (to use Sarah Palin's term) is mostly based in the New York region. They all wanted the New York Jets in the Super Bowl, not only because it was New York, but because the team in question once starred Joe Namath and now has a head coach who is good copy, foot fetish and all.
They have been taking the Jets' humiliating loss in Pittsburgh out on the Steelers ever since Antonio Brown caught that game-sealing pass. Rex Ryan suddenly had nothing to say, but all of those Manhattan-and-Bristol-based sports writers certainly do. They are rooting for the Packers. Even if the Steelers win, the scribes and talking heads will find a way to diss the Steelers. Count on it.
It's a media conspiracy.
Hand me my Terrible Towel.
It's almost game time.