Monday, May 1, 2017

Playing Through The Whistle

A city as small as Aliquippa should not have produced so many great football players. Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett and Darrelle Revis all grew up in the same steel town in Western Pennsylvania, which, even at its peak, never had more than 30,000 residents. Despite its lack of size, the town’s lone high school annually churns out Division I players, many of whom wind up in the NFL. Manufacturing steel and playing football have a lot in common: they are fields were toughness is prized, discipline is essential and the good of the whole trumps that of the individual. It’s probably not a coincidence that the sons of the factory workers who built the American war machine became some of the best football players in the country. These days, the factories are shuttered and the jobs are gone, but the people left behind in dying towns like Aliquippa still have football, the one constant in a world turned upside down.

S.L. Price, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, first visited Aliquippa to report on its football program. He found an even more interesting story instead. Within the span of one lifetime, Aliquippa went from a glittering symbol of the triumph of the New Deal to an urban wasteland that looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off downtown, as one longtime NFL general manager told Price. Its meteoric rise and even more dizzying fall mirrors that of the Rust Belt as a whole. Playing Through The Whistle is primarily about the history of one town and its obsession with football, but it does as good a job as any of explaining how we got to where we are today as a country. The book should be subtitled The Decline And Fall Of The American Empire.

Aliquippa began as a company town at the end of the Gilded Age, a place where the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company could build a private empire. The invention of the Bessemer furnace had changed steel production from being done by hand to a mechanized assembly line that required huge amounts of manual labor. Waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe and black sharecroppers from the South came to work in the massive factories rising up from the ground. Each ethnic group was settled into its own distinct neighborhood in the city, creating divisions within the workforce that still exist to this day. Baseball was king at the time, but the country was changing, and a new sport was emerging that would capture the national imagination:
[Baseball’s] pastoral air, subtle details and gunfighter showdowns between pitcher and batter harked back to an era of artisans and yeomen, its rhythm increasingly at odds with the nerve-racking pace of the machine age. Football channeled frustration, rewarded power. It fed and fed off the ethos of factory, mill and mine. Muddy, bloody and raw, football felt more like the life now unfolding at ground level in Western Pennsylvania: bodies punished in a fight for the slightest edge. 
The Great Depression and the New Deal completed the transformation, and Aliquippa was ground zero. In 1937, a landmark Supreme Court case involving the J&L Steel Corporation effectively ended opposition to FDR’s agenda, expanding the Commerce Clause in the US Constitution to justify almost any intervention by the federal government into private business. Steelworkers were given the freedom to unionize, while World War II created an insatiable demand for their product. After the war, with the rest of the industrialized world in shambles, American manufacturing had no real competition, allowing the newfound wealth to be spread relatively evenly. The unions went on strike every three years like clockwork, and each time they won a new concession, culminating in the thirteen-week vacation that would later become a symbol for bloat and entitlement. It was a golden age, except like all golden ages, it came to a quick end and it wasn’t all that golden either.

The mills provided jobs, but they were brutal jobs that took years off their employees’ lives. And, in some cases, limbs. No one wanted their kids to work there. In that way, the mill is a lot like pro football. Mike Ditka’s dad worked at J&L so that his son could play in the NFL, and Ditka played in the NFL so that his sons could do anything else. He said that he wouldn’t allow them to play the sport knowing what they know now. It’s a blue-collar version of this John Adams quote:
I must study politics and war so that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics, philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain. 
The problem is that a lot more people can earn a living making steel than playing football, and even fewer can make it as artists. For every Aliquippa native who grows up to become a Hollywood composer, like Henry Mancini, a dozen more are struggling to find work in the post-industrial dystopia of the modern Rust Belt. The jobs aren’t coming back, and the only thing that has taken their place is drugs.

Price uses the story of Jeff Baldwin, an Aliquippa High standout who played college football at Pitt before returning home, to illustrate the remaining paths out. One of his sons, Jonathan Baldwin, was a first-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. The other was Jamie Brown, a drug kingpin who may or may not (depending on who you ask) have ordered the assassination of a cop that shook what was left of the town to its foundation. Given the state of the school system in Aliquippa, even the players who make it to college have a difficult time rising out of poverty, since they are so unprepared academically. It’s only NFL stars like Ty Law, Sean Gilbert and Darrelle Revis who have the financial stability to uproot their lives and leave the town for good. Aliquippa went from a place that pushed people into the middle class to one that kept them out.

On the field, their biggest rival is Hopewell High, the suburban school comprised mainly of people whose parents and grandparents worked in the mills and then left for literal greener pastures. Price’s reporting, which stretches back to the founding of both communities, covers the beginning of white flight in the 1960’s to the final results a half century later. Aliquippa went from an all-white team, to one that gradually accepted black players, to a program with hardly any whites left. In Price’s telling, Aliquippa in the 1970’s was almost like Yugoslavia, with the police helpless as rival gangs of whites and blacks created militias that partitioned the town. There were daily racial brawls at Aliquippa High, and even the bonds forged from football weren’t immune from being broken. The grandson of Carl Aschman, the coach who turned the school into a football powerhouse, was beaten up in its hallways.

There’s no way to read the book and not wonder what could have been done differently. Things are bad in Aliquippa, and they don’t look like they will be getting better anytime soon. There’s just no money left. Even the football team might be gone in five years. But while the people in charge at the steel factory, whether they were in management or labor, were definitely spoiled by their success, could they have resisted the structural changes that doomed American industry? Once automation made the Bessemer furnace obsolete, mass layoffs were inevitable.

America wasn’t going to be the land of opportunity forever. Nothing ever is. The country that greeted the immigrants who helped found Aliquippa is a lot different than the one their grandchildren live in today. Instead of hoping our kids will have better lives than our own, we just hope they won’t be worse. The only thing harder than reaching the middle class is staying there. If history is filled with the sound of wooden shoes going upstairs and silken slippers going down, as Voltaire once said, we are well into the latter stage. Once civilizations reach a high enough level of prosperity, there’s only one direction left for them to go. Make America Great Again? If only it were that easy.

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