View Full Version : From football pitch to political battlefield to pastures new

09-29-2009, 09:46 PM
From football pitch to political battlefield to pastures new


AMERICA: THE MOST important instinct for the owner of a football team is knowing how to pick a winner. Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the US ambassador to Ireland, wasn’t much involved in politics, but he took a keen interest in debates between Democratic Party candidates before the last US presidential election.
“Barack Obama was far and away over everybody else’s head,” says Rooney (77), sitting in his office at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh’s gleaming football stadium and the home of the Steelers.

“I felt it was time we had an African-American president, and I said to myself, ‘This guy’s great’.”

An American flag four storeys high hangs on the side of the stadium, before a vista of the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers, and towering skyscrapers beyond.

As Rooney and I talk, Obama and the first lady, Michelle, are just a few miles away, greeting world leaders and their spouses at the opening reception of the G20 summit.

Rooney recalls the first of a dozen meetings with the US president, in the very convention centre where the summit was taking place on Thursday and yesterday. “He was meeting with the steelworkers’ union. We talked about football – the president is a big fan. He said, ‘I’m a Bears [the Chicago team] fan,’ and I respected his honesty.”

The streets of Pittsburgh are lined with buildings named after the Heinzes, Carnegies and Mellons – 19th-century industrial barons who endowed the city with museums, theatres, concert halls and universities.

But two generations of Rooneys have given Pittsburgh something more: incredible pride in their world-champion football team.

No single individual was solely responsible for Obama’s election, but Rooney’s role cannot be underestimated.

This year, Pittsburgh is especially jubilant.

Obama, whom the city supported massively after Rooney spoke out for him, was inaugurated in January.

In February, the Steelers won the Super Bowl.

Then the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup ice-hockey championship.

This week, the city was festooned with green banners saying, “Pittsburgh Welcomes the World!”

The Rooneys have come to symbolise the hardworking, sports-loving character of Pittsburgh.

“Football and the identity of Pittsburgh are completely intertwined,” says Debra Patrick, a human resources consultant.

“I signed up for season tickets, and I was 15,000th on the waiting list.”

Several Pittsburghers told me how Rooney is mobbed by well- wishers when he walks in the city, and how much he was respected for cancelling the first match at the newly built Heinz Field after the September 11th, 2001, attacks and for persuading the National Football League (NFL) to cancel matches across the US.

Like two-thirds of Pittsburgh, Rooney’s youngest son, Jim, a businessman, initially supported Hillary Clinton.

“Obama won me over,” Jim Rooney recalls.

Eric Holder, now the US attorney general, was the lawyer for the NFL. Holder and Jim Rooney initially advised Dan not to overexpose himself.

The Rooneys had breakfast with the Obamas at Pamela’s Pancakes in Pittsburgh on the morning Obama lost the Pennsylvania primary. (Obama has since invited Pamela to cook pancakes in the White House.)

“My dad says to me and Eric Holder, ‘You two were wrong. I want to talk to people, to be out in front on this issue’,” Jim Rooney says.

Father and son campaigned in neighbouring West Virginia and southeast Ohio. Dan delivered close to 80 speeches.

“Between Youngstown and Martin’s Ferry is the swing area of Ohio, they’re all Steelers fans,” Jim explains.

Dan helped to win West Virginia by giving an interview to the ESPN sports news channel in front of two Obama posters.

On election day, they feared voters in African-American neighbourhoods would tire of waiting to cast their ballot, so Dan Rooney worked the queues, shaking hands and asking people to be patient.

Obama’s election was, he says, “one of the greatest days in American history”.

Rooney lives in an African-American neighbourhood in Pittsburgh.

His popularity is partly do to the Steelers’ pioneering promotion of black athletes.

Ray Kemp, one of the first African-American players in the NFL, joined the Steelers in 1933.

The Steelers later hired Lowell Perry and Tony Dungy, the first African-Americans to become assistant coach and co-ordinator of football teams.

Racism still exists in the US, Rooney says. “I know people from the south who are fine people, but you have to give them a push sometimes, like the Rooney rule [which requires teams to interview a minority for each opening]. It might take 200 years if you wait.”

There has been an element of racism in the sometimes virulent criticism of Obama, Rooney says, though he believes the Republicans’ desire to wrest the House from the Democrats in next year’s midterm elections is a more important factor.

Now Rooney brings the warmth and humanity that have made him so loved in Pittsburgh to his job as ambassador.

He wants to visit every town in Ireland, “so the Irish realise we still care, that they’re our friends”.