Tuesday, January 31, 2006

XL: The Narrative Emerges

So the Big Game is upon us, and like most big games, it has to be more than just two teams meeting on the field. It has to have greater importance, deeper meaning, and act as a metaphor for our lives. It has to have an underlying narrative.

In the weeks of the playoffs, the expected narrative was overturned, and the story-tellers have been scrambling to regain their footing ever since. The Narrative was supposed to be "The Unbeatable Colts" - a championship run that would rival the old Dolphins. It was going to be a coronation following a championship year. Well, the Steelers put an end to that dream, knocked the Conventional Wisdom off its pins, and left it groping for concepts.

The Steelers, Conventional Wisdom said at the start, were lucky to get into the playoffs at all. They were the sixth seed, the "Miss Congeniality" of the playoffs, soon to get bumped off by more powerful teams. Except they didn't. They were supposed to lose to Cincinnati, then to Indianapolis, then to the Broncos, and they failed to fall on their swords. Instead they played very good football.

Ditto the Seahawks. CW stated that they would at least get into the playoffs, maybe a wild card, because their division was weak and they had a cake schedule, but once the playoffs started, they would be pasted by more capable teams. That failed to happen, and they rolled forward as well, much to the chagrin of people who were supposed to know better. And a week and a half ago, we were seeing these two teams earn their way to the Big Game.

And at the time I wondered what the spin would be. Given that the media did not prepare its fans for this result (indeed, even in the last quarter of the Steeler's rout of Indianapolis, you could hear the announcers straining for say how Indy could still turn it around), how would they recover. Was this game going to be New Tech versus Old Tech? Xboxes against rolled steel? West against East? White Collar against Blue Collar? The Nation's Richest Guy against the Wage-Earners (don't look at the Steeler salaries - we're talking about image here).

Actually, it looks like it's going to be Good against Evil. And Seattle is being fitted for the devil suit.

In the press, the Seattle team is being ignored at best. We have the Runningest Running Back in the bidness in the form of Shaun Alexander, but the Narrative is fixed on Jerome "The Bus" Bettis, who is returning to his home town to play what may be his last game. Over on the QB side, Matt Hasselbeck has matured into an excellent quarterback, but the attention is on Hot (!) Young (!) Talent (!) Ben "Big Ben" Roethlisberger. (Maybe Paul Allen should put a few bucks in the budget next year to buy his guys nicknames).

But in the warm and fuzzies that surround the Big Game, Seattle the location is being villified. We are strangers in our own land, kids from the boonies, unknown and suspect. Vaguely unamerican. Lattes, sushi, liberal politics, with a city government that is not going broke. You know, suspicious. There is a lot of mention of the Lenin statue in Fremont, not so much for the Troll three blocks away (because that doesn't fit the narative). Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is being hoisted up as the working man's city, broad-shouldered, burly and patriotic. It is Steelworker Chic, even though the only steel it produces these days is its defensive line. Pittsburgh haven't rolled steel since the team went "One for the Thumb in '81", the old mills are cold and converted to light industry, reseach labs, and movie-plexes. Still, the memories give Pittsburgh as supposed superiority as a city, which then informs the rest of the reporting. Everything is supposedly BETTER in Pittsburgh, validated by its teams successes. I actually read an editorial in the Seattle papers from a Seattilite living in Shadyside extolling, among other things, how better Pittsburgh's traffic is (OK guys, you can quit giggling).

Now of course, it is relatively . . . dumb . . . to tie the self-worth of any town solely to the success of its sports team. One does not connect to the other. Seattle housing prices or sandwiches from the Primanti Brothers have very little to do with the exploits of the men of the field. In a larger sense it is a shame because football teams are more regional now, and focusing on Seattle the city and Pittsburgh the city sort of misses the point of the regional boosterism. People who are frustrated by Pittsburgh the City bleed black and gold when it comes time to play the game, and strong support for the Seahawks come from the surrounding suburbs. But I suppose a game between the Puget Sound Seahawks and the Western PA Steelers wouldn't have the same resonance. And it is all about the Narrative.

I think part of the rising good/evil narrative is in part the result of the Steeler fans. Sorry, the Steeler Nation. While Seattle is proud to have its 12th man (note to Texas A&M - Bite us), its fandom is relatively young and unblooded, aided by excellent team play and home field architecture that funnels the sound into the center of the field. Pittsburgh has fandom down to a generational science, from the terrible towels to the really, really goofy sports songs (something that is missing out here, which makes us even more . . . suspect . . . . in the minds of others). I have watched the chattering classes go from admitting that the Steeler Fans "travel well" to conceding home field advantage in Pittsburgh. Its easy to identify with the wielders of the Terrible Towels. Seattle remains mysterious, and therefore mildly threatening.

So the new Narrative? Coronation of Pittsburgh, Return of the Conquering Hero in Bettis, Start of a New Steel Dynasty. Seattle is merely a bump in the red carpet. The Steelers want it more, demand it more, and therefore should get it. How dare the Seahawks rain on this parade?

The only warning I can post is that the Conventional Wisdom has previously picked each of Pittsburgh's opponents as going "all the way" and failed to take into account the fact that Pittsburgh kept winning simply because it is a very good team. Now that the CW has swung to their side, I'd be worried. The CW's track record isn't that good. And Seattle is a very good team.

More later,