Penguins Fans Have a Chance to Skate By | Left Field | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Penguins Fans Have a Chance to Skate By

County Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl can cancel their enrollment in the witness-protection program. We don't have to put our Sidney Crosby jerseys in mothballs or enshrine them behind glass. The Penguins are staying in Pittsburgh after all.

It is a harsh reality of the 21st century that Kansas City was used to leverage the best deal possible for the Pens in Pittsburgh. (Las Vegas was used, too, but it's impossible to feel sorry for Vegas.) Welcome to the wonderful world of sports franchises, Kansas City fans.

The days and weeks leading up to the final resolution between Gov. Ed Rendell and team owner Mario Lemieux were dark, cynical times. I tried to maintain faith in the face of greed, ego and uncertainty. One thought nagged like a bad tooth: If professional sports is really just a business, then why do we do it?

There aren't any guarantees, after all. Only one team is the champ at the end of any season, and chances are it won't be yours. Pittsburgh hasn't suffered a drought like Cleveland, whose fans have been waiting since 1964 for any of their franchises to win a championship. But we've stood by losing teams, complaining all the while, because it's what we love to do.

A perpetually failing franchise is frustrating, angering and incomprehensibly annoying. While the Pirates never have caused me to question why I watch, during the Pens' tenuous tenure, I did sometimes wonder why I allowed myself to care.

Even so, the pain of a losing franchise is nothing compared to the pain of losing a franchise.

Since they're staying, what do we gain as a city? The loss of the Penguins certainly would have been a blow to our already questionable self-esteem. Beyond that, one is reminded of the ancient Roman satirist Juvenal: "Two things only the people anxiously desire: bread and circuses."

But maybe there's a bit more to it than that. Maybe the most important reason we should rejoice that the Penguins are staying is this: They provide another arena, as it were, for us to feel connected to each other.

Were the Pittsburgh Opera to pack up its librettos and go, it would be a huge loss for all of us. It would be one less option, and that diminishes the quality of life for all members of the community. Sure, we need jobs, roads and schools, but just as much we crave something else to sustain us: the arts, a sense of community, something bigger than each of us alone.

Sports franchises, in addition to adding options, give us just that. Whether you think hockey is frivolous, or you wonder what all the screaming is about at the Benedum, having those outlets is an absolute good.

In his 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, scholar Robert Putnam argues that we have become increasingly disconnected from our families, neighbors and friends. Putnam uses bowling as an example of the decline in Americans' memberships in social organizations. He claims that though the number of people who bowl has increased in the past 20 years, the number of people who participate in bowling leagues has decreased. His conclusion: Today's bowlers do not participate in the social interaction which might occur in a league setting.

Sports franchises, though, can provide us with the social capital whose disappearance Putnam laments. I previously spoke to Daniel Wann, author of Sports Fans, the Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators, about the importance of sports in our modern world. He directed me to a quote by Canadian radio host Roy Green, who said of hockey: "Hockey is our national glue. It defines Canada and Canadians. We have so few people in such a large land. ... But hockey holds us together."

Don't Pittsburgh sports teams hold us together as a community in some ways, too?

Or maybe we care about our sports teams simply because, like Mount Everest, they are there. For the foreseeable future, I'll continue to care. If only because the Pens will go on being a part of my home.

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