I Live in Pittsburgh and I Don’t Give a Crap About Sports
Repeatedly falling under the Best Cities for Sports Fans in America, Pittsburgh is home to some of the most recognizable and iconic sports stars, past and present. It is at this point that I’m supposed to give some examples of our city’s football heroes and baseball pioneers or whatever, and describe their legacies with great gusto. But I don’t know shit about sports.
I am not a fan, and never have been. I don’t understand why anyone would choose to wear a jersey on casual Friday or spend the equivalent of a mortgage payment on Steelers season tickets. I don’t even know when football season is (I guess now?). I’m a black sheep in a sea of black and gold camaraderie.
So the question I ask is, how does someone like myself, someone who would much rather spend her Sundays making a chocolate soufflé than shouting at a televised sports event, begin to navigate this sport-laden landscape? How do I begin to understand and, more importantly, just live in a city where so many of its occupants paint the exterior of their homes black and yellow, spend hundreds of dollars on cheaply made jerseys, burn couches (for a win or a loss), and get the Pirates logo tattooed on their forearms?
Pittsburgh’s long-standing history of winning
To better understand this world of undying loyalty and fierce sportsmanship, I turned to Faith Collins. Hailing from the Northern suburbs of Pittsburgh, Faith’s family has been in Pennsylvania since the Hzdoviches emigrated from Slovakia via Ellis Island; her dad's side since the American Revolution. It goes without saying that her ties to Western Pennsylvania are deeply rooted.
Faith and I share a demographic: 24 years old, college educated, and preferring dive bars and irreverent jokes. Yet we differ entirely on our understanding of the sports capital in which we both live.
While Faith has been able to name each quarterback “starting and at least second string, since 1995,” I couldn’t name more than two current players for the Penguins, even after conducting drool-inducing research for this article. Sports are a fundamental part of Pittsburgh’s identity, and it’s at least partly attributed to Pittsburgh’s history as a blue collar town with a thriving steel industry at the beginning and middle of the 20th century.
While soldiers were returning home from WWII, “the Pirates were making a name for themselves at Forbes Field,” Faith told me. “During the ‘70s, the Steelers were racking up championships. Willie Stargell and Terry Bradshaw shared a Sports Illustrated cover.” Pittsburgh was glistening even as the steel industry was fading. Maybe it’s this three-quarters of a century bond that makes Pittsburghers committed fans from birth.
The idol worship is strong
One of my first brushes with fandom came while I was waitressing at Marty’s Market in the Strip. I served plenty of famous people, including Rose Leslie, or, as most know her, the pale red-headed Ygritte from Game of Thrones. I immediately recognized her and proceeded to trip all over myself in glee.
My reaction to the badass, sole-female Wildling paled in comparison to the frenzy that arose when Chris Kunitz of the Pittsburgh Penguins came into our restaurant. Everyone in the place -- patrons, staff, infant children -- seemed overcome by his celebrity as they nervously whispered and gawked and snapped photos. I continued to bus tables in a state of utter confusion.
I firmly believe there is an unspoken level of commitment amongst Pittsburgh’s sports fans that makes them stand apart from the rest. And keeps me completely isolated.
According to my sports guru Faith, the sports culture of the city can’t be talked about without mention of icons like Mario Lemieux or Sidney Crosby. “People name their dogs after these men. They are not athletes; they are worshipped.”
Being a fan in Pittsburgh means you love your team and players unconditionally. “Even when they lose for 20 years straight, you are a fan.” Pittsburgh-based fans make a “commitment like a marriage to [their] Pirates, Pens, and Steelers. We're scary, but we're loyal.”
About that time they flipped a car...
Since moving here, I’ve heard stories about Steelers fans being violently faithful to their teams -- i.e., setting the nearest object on fire in a fit of rage or glory. What I have seen is the small but constant gestures Pittsburgh fans make to prove their loyalty. Like the horrendous (and overpriced) Steelers purses I used to sell when I was working at a boutique in the South Hills. A store, I should mention, that considered itself upscale, yet still carried a slew of Made in China sports-themed accessories, including Penguins earrings. These flew off the shelves.
Faith, whose mother has both a doctorate and a visible Steelers tattoo, also believes that the rabid fandom is more evident in the mundane acts than the extreme ones.
“I know a lot of people with Steelers tattoos, Steelers basements, and jerseys for every day of the week. It's the consistent, year-round craziness and everyone's in on it -- even if you're not, you are.” Faith also added that, at 14, her parents brought her to a celebration for the 2005 Super Bowl. A car was turned over, people jumped onto said car, and subsequently lit a teddy bear on fire, in that order.
Thus far, I’ve never had any overtly negative experiences with fans in Pittsburgh. Despite hearing about gnarly fights between Steelers and Browns fans, I think my neutrality is regarded as a mild annoyance at best. And the same can be said for my feelings towards most fans. Sure, I’d rather not have to listen to you and your 15 closest friends talk loudly about the baseball game you’re en route to as you all manspread me into the tightest corner of the trolley. My feelings towards the general sports atmosphere in Pittsburgh only reaches disgust levels when it begins to inundate my everyday life.
‘De-fense, de-fense, de-fense, wooo!’
For a solid two months after moving to Pittsburgh in 2010, a corner store near my bus stop would blast the Steelers fight song, "Here We Go," on repeat. If you know anything about catching buses in Pittsburgh, you know this meant that, more than often, I would be listening to this song for a solid 45 minutes, five days a week. Needless to say, I now know every word to this song, and I’ll never get that brain real estate back.
I never caught the bug -- the moment I’ve been told by many Pittsburghers I will eventually have. That moment in which all the fandom makes sense and you are officially a part of it, no matter how hard you resist.
For now, I am whole-heartedly enjoying the many perks of being a non-sports fan. Without the preoccupation of sports, I spend my free time reading, gardening, or ferociously making my through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The truth is that laying in bed half asleep or eating a cold piece of pizza in silence continues to be more enjoyable than watching sports.
Perhaps it’s because my parents never did it, or because my West Coast high school didn’t have gym classes. Maybe because my only brush with organized sports was my spot on the worst middle school volleyball team in Coconino County. I was known as the girl who was terrible at serving, and wore inappropriately small shorts. Publicly sobbing over a lost game, naming your child after a hockey player, and pledging loyalty to an intangible one-way relationship is inconceivable to me.
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Despite my best efforts to remain neutral, my interest in the ‘Burgh’s fandom has been sparked. Pittsburgh fans are diehard and influential, much like the teams they support, and have at the very least ignited my curiosity. I don’t think I’ll be getting a portrait of Sidney Crosby tattooed on my back anytime soon, but I can safely say that I’ll never again unknowingly serve pancakes to Chris Kunitz.
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Julianna Bagwell is a freelance writer that wants to blow her brains out whenever she hears her fiance start talking about hockey, fearing that he may lapse into a black and gold stupor of yelling profanities at men in black and white stripes on skates. Follow her @JuliannaLocal