Political Football

November 14, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

Thinking back on the Democratic sweep of a week ago, I now realize that I should have seen it coming last year during football season. It was the year of the Steelers.
I don’t mean anything silly, like the idea that the Superbowl forecasts the stock market— if the NFC team wins, buy; if the AFC wins, sell. It’s worked about three-quarters of the time, but if it’s anything more than coincidence, it’s mostly because the NFC has won more often than the AFC, and the stock market has gone up more often than down.

But the link between the Steelers and the election may be real. It wasn’t that the Steelers won the Superbowl; it was that somehow along the way, they had become “America’s Team.”

That title used to belong to the Dallas Cowboys. I imagine that some PR person for the Cowboys dreamed up the phrase, but it was true in a way. The Cowboys weren’t really America’s team so much as they were what we might now call the Red States’ Team. Through a wide swath of the South and West, people rooted for the Cowboys, mostly because football fans had no other good pro team to root for, maybe no team at all.

Today, fans in places like Arizona, North Carolina, and Tennessee have local teams. Not so in the 1960s and 70s. And the teams that did make their home in the South and West were in the AFC. On Sunday, NBC would broadcast the local AFC team (Broncos, Dolphins). But the CBS affiliate would be broadcasting the NFC, and usually it was the Cowboys.

So the people who listened to Country & Western on the radio watched the Cowboys on TV. Rooting for Dallas was easy in those days. The Cowboys were good. They went to the Superbowl four times in the 1970s, winning twice. Beyond the won-lost record, they had an image, a brand. The Cowboys represented the individualist strain in
American culture. The Cowboys were Texas, the land of big thinking, big opportunity, and every man for himself. They were rugged, independent, a football version of the Marlboro man. And just as Americans bought Marlboro cigarettes, America also bought a lot of Cowboys jerseys and other paraphernalia. For a while, the Cowboys alone accounted for 30% of all NFL merchandise sales.

As the red states got more NFL teams, the Cowboys position as “America’s Team” started to fade. There were teams closer to home to root for, and the Cowboys’ performance in the past few years hasn’t exactly been the kind that makes distant fans remain loyal.

The Steeler brand is something else entirely. If the Cowboys were the team of the Sun Belt, the Steelers are the team of the Rust Belt. Pittsburgh produces very little steel these days. The economy of the region is dominated by medical complexes. That and unemployment. But the team is still called the Steelers, not the Medics, and it still represents the values of an industrial past. Steelworkers are working class wage earners bringing home a paycheck. Their families depend on the New Deal kind of government they pay taxes to or the union they are part of to help protect them from the uncertainties of life — sudden turns of fortune like layoffs at work and serious illness at home. These people stress the public and collective over the private and individual. Remember, the Steelers’ powerful running back Jerome Bettis was not called the SUV or the Pick-up Truck; he was public transportation, The Bus.

Is there a parallel in the election? We all know that people were voting against Republican policies in Iraq and against Republican sleaze. But Democrats weren’t just non-Republicans. Many of the Democrats who won ran as economic populists. They support policies that benefit ordinary people and perhaps cut into the profits of corporations. One of the first things the new Democratic congress will do is pass an increase in the minimum wage. They will also try to change the new Medicare law to allow the Government to negotiate with drug companies to get lower prices, something forbidden under the Republicans’ Medicare bill.

In 2005, the Steelers became America’s team. They won the Superbowl. But more tellingly, Americans, voting with their wallets, bought more Steeler merchandise than that of any other team. Nine months later, Americans voted for a congressional majority that could easily be wearing black and gold under their red, white, and blue.

(An ironic footnote: The election did feature one actual Steeler. Lynn Swann, the great receiver for the great Steeler teams of the seventies, ran for governor of Pennsylvania as a Republican. He lost badly.)

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