I must confess this as a die-hard Cincinnati Bengals fan…The Pittsburgh Steelers are the sports equivalent of Darth Vader and the Empire in my mind. They are the most formidable opponent in the NFL. A classic villain for the ages. Hard nosed. Dirty (Hines Ward). Iconic. Timeless. They are the quintessential Sith Lords of the AFC North to this lifelong Cincinnati native and you can’t tell me nothing to convince me otherwise. I hate the Steelers with a passion forged in the deepest fires of my heart. When I was first introduced to watching football on t.v, my mother made sure I knew who Franco Harris was because she wanted me to know that if she had anything to do with it…he would have been my biological father. Her bloodthirsty and immutable reverence for the Steelers was paralyzing to me in the seventies and guaranteed my love of Cincinnati’s own…The Bengals.
This brings me to my problematic admiration for Pittsburgh’s current Super Bowl winning coach, Mr. Mike Tomlin. There is a saying around the way (in the hood, the neighborhood, the barber shop or at home) “Game recognizes game.” That means in short…if you are a participant in the game of life and consider yourself a sharp and perceptive individual then by virtue of that fact you can see those same qualities in others. I have always recognized the “champion” in Mike Tomlin, and so when people ask me about my clear and palpable hatred for the Steelers and how can I still be a fan of Coach Tomlin…I just remind folks that I can support the man without supporting his cause.
Mike Tomlin is the kind of brother I would point out to my children as a definite role model. He is a very visible overachiever in his trade given his two Super Bowl appearances with one win. As a man of color he is definitely an overcomer in a billion dollar league that employs only two other African American head coaches. . Since he was appointed as only the third head coach in the history of one of the NFL’s most storied franchises…he has never forced that city to carry the burden of a losing season. Being a leader of men, he has led the Steelers with a combination of class, tenacity and integrity. He has certainly led by example even amidst the unfortunate antics of one Antonio Brown. He is a man among men and the bar for future African American coaches, if not all coaches, seeking the coveted role of the face of the franchise.
I must admit there is another reason why I’m unapologetically a Mike Tomlin fan. I support Tomlin because he portrays the kind of image that I feel works against the age old stereotypes/narrative about Black People whether it is concerning a maintenance job at the local high school or as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Often times black people are talked about behind closed doors or in private e-mails, and for that matter so is everyone else, but racism and bias are easily whited-out within the pre-existing paradigms of behavior. The Power structure that exists in all walks of life and in all avenues of business have established labyrinthine and clandestine systems to preserve the status quo of the current gate keepers and elites in charge. This current push for "fake diversity” in everything from the new Marvel Eternals movie to The NFL declaring they support Black Lives Matter after behaving like a cadre of villainous, mustache twirling matinee villains has always made me weary. I see most if not all of these efforts as the deliberate and insincere smoke screen that they are. But when a true winner like Mike Tomlin rises to the top with the aid of a very forward thinking and gracious NFL family like the Rooneys…excellence is on full display and cannot be denied. This makes me proud as a Black Man and as a former football player. I had the chance to play football in high school at a very high level (Cincinnati Moeller High School) and then again in college (Boston College). I recognize first the challenge of being a player in the athletic/political theatre of football. Race weighs heavily on sports and ideas of what people can achieve and what they can’t…this type of thinking and analysis of talent becomes even more pronounced in the arena of coaching. For Tomlin to have already successfully navigated those raging waters along with the rest of the psychological baggage that is par for the course if you’re a baller (player or coach) is astounding. But to also be as articulate and outspoken as he is sometimes is a sheer delight to see as he is arguably the best head coach currently in the NFL next to Bill Belichik.
Mike Tomlin’s recent dust up with the media is encouraging…invigorating even but not shocking. Despite his impeccable career thus far and his mind blowing list of accomplishments with resume in tow…he is never characterized as a “genius”… “wizard” or “X’s and O’s guy” like a great deal of his white counterparts have in the past and present. I think, and I can only speculate, that Mike Tomlin reacted in such a volatile manner to rumors of him leaving The Pittsburgh Steelers to coach The USC Trojans because of the absurdity of it all. Have you not witnessed anything I’ve done? Does any of it, warrant any respect at all? The job in Pittsburgh is the absolute pinnacle of football respect…but taking that club to the big dance twice is the stuff of gridiron dreams. In a league where a successful black head coach is as rare as a Californian Condor…why would anybody believe that a trailblazer like Mike Tomlin is considering taking a less prestigious job in the NCAA where he’s already been? If he was unemployed, maybe. If he was in the middle of contract negotiations with the Rooneys and was trying to create pressure, possible scenario. If Tomlin was an alumni or had some tangential connection to USC, it would be more discernible. I have since learned that Carson Palmer (my favorite Cincinnati Bengals QB of all time) may have inadvertently started this brouhaha innocently by mentioning that USC would like a “Player’s Coach” like Mike Tomlin to come in and revamp the Trojans. Innocent enough but the bottom line for me is that Mike Tomlin has accomplished too much and come too far to relinquish his Hall of Fame bound career in the NFL for a big pay day on some college campus. He’s come too far to stop trailblazing the path he started that will almost inevitably change the game and the resume for existing and future African American head coaches. Please put some respect on his name.
And yes… I still loathe the Steelers.