Every week this semester, I have sifted between the social issues occurring in connection to sports. And each time I would get bogged down by the continually depressing stories telling of the lack of social awareness. But this week, instead, my choice came easily. For once, my message could be centered around someone doing things the right way.
Dan Rooney, the owner of the Steelers, passed away at 84 last week. Rooney was the example of someone who ran a team with the awareness that there were other important interests outside of his own. To let his death go unmentioned seemed wrong in my book, but it would be even worse to not share what he did in his life.
I would not be writing this column if I hadn’t grown up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I grew up in the sports town. I grew up in a city where bridges shut down every time the baseball team plays and the history museum’s biggest exhibit contains the relics of sports and football days past.
I never had the honor of meeting Rooney. I’ve walked by him and seen him in press boxes. I can’t write a column commending his character or sharing personal anecdotes of all he’s done for me. I never had the pleasure. But instead, I think he should be used as a lesson — an example for what owners of all professional teams should strive to do. To all current and future owners: Care as much about the league and its impact as he did.
First step: Care about the city your team is in. In the NFL right now, teams are moving locations at unprecedented rates. San Diego and Oakland are feeling incredibly abandoned right now, and lifelong fans are left feeling disappointed by the team they have loved their whole lives. St. Louis is even currently in the midst of a lawsuit suing the NFL and the LA Rams’ owner over the team’s abrupt departure. Cities and fan bases are feeling abandoned by owners who care less about the cities that their teams have chosen to call home and more about the amount of money they make each year.
It is rare for any professional team to have an owner that truly cares about the city and goes above and beyond to have an impact beyond the team itself. All teams have charities and do philanthropic work in their city, often just to have pictures of their athletes doing good things to put on their websites. But it’s rare when they actually go beyond that. Rooney did his work quietly through the organizations he was a part of in Pittsburgh and during his time as the ambassador to Ireland, as appointed by former president Barack Obama. Among his commitments to the city was keeping the team in Pittsburgh, despite its smaller size. In addition, he supported making the city a better place by serving on boards in a variety of areas and supporting a variety of educational groups in the area, such as the high school athletic league.
Next up, make an impact on the social environment of the league you are in. His most enduring and memorable legacy is the Rooney Rule, the policy stating that when interviewing for openings for head coaches, a minority candidate must be among the candidates. He certainly didn’t have a perfect resume; for example, he kept quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the team despite sexual assault allegations. But what’s important is that people in similar positions take advantage of the power that they have, and Rooney did that on a far larger scale than anyone else. Rooney realized that there was a problem and used the credibility that he had established to create a rule that has certainly made a difference today. The eight minority head coaches that will start the 2017 NFL season aren’t enough, but they sure are a heck of a lot better than what we would have had without the Rooney Rule.
It’s easy to say that Rooney will be remembered lovingly for creating a championship franchise. But that wasn’t always the case. Decades were spent without that kind of success, but even during that time, the iconic nature of the owner and his franchise was maintained. Not just because of the memories of what had been, but instead because the team became a part of the town in all facets, including caring about the people in the city itself.
Reporters wrote glowing things after his death, because most of them were able to recall that he actually knew them and how that made a difference to their lives. Learning from those who came before us can be one of the most important things we do. Seeing beyond color of skin and initial impressions are crucial. Instead of lamenting his death, let’s celebrate his life and use the way he lived to improve our own and create relationships between cities and teams like he did.
Owners shouldn’t be distant from their teams and from their cities. Dan Rooney taught us that they should also realize the impact that they have and use it to put an eye on the things that they find most important, whether that’s on or off the field.
Too many stories are told about owners who only care about money, such as Jerry Jones, while more attention should be focused on the good deeds and actions being taken by those such as Rooney. If giving more focus to owners such as Rooney means that there are more like him, then let’s write more stories and not wait for the end of his life to remind younger generations of what people are doing. The most powerful people in sports and other areas of the world could take a page or two from his book.
Contact Alaina Getzenberg at [email protected]