By Matthew Marczi
As with any professional sports organization that has been around for more than a few years, the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers is not without its shadowy figures from time to time. Of course, with the advent of 24-hour sports networks, social media, and amateur paparazzi, it is all the more difficult for professional athletes to keep their public profiles clean, and Pittsburgh’s recent history has had its fair share of run-ins in this regard.
At first glance, it would be easy to start with linebacker Joey Porter and his frequent confrontations with opposing teams; however, the only time that it jeopardized the team was when he got himself ejected from a game in 2004, which merely gave James Harrison his first chance to start a game.
Harrison, of course, was involved in arguably the team’s most difficult personnel dilemma after the team elected not to release him when only weeks later wide receiver Cedrick Wilson was cut following a similar incident. Dan Rooney was accused of hypocrisy—in addition to misogyny—favoring Harrison as a starter while discarding the fourth-string wide receiver.
Of course, neither incident was so clear cut that they should be blindly treated as interchangeable and thus automatically meriting the same disciplinary action. Many of the details have been lost to apathy, but the information is still easily accessible.
Harrison was arrested on March 8th and charged with simple assault and criminal mischief after striking his girlfriend and the mother of his child, Beth Tibbott. Reportedly, Harrison and Tibbott engaged in a dispute regarding having their son baptized, on which Harrison insisted.
At one point, Tibbott locked herself in a bedroom and attempted to call 911, having grown fearful of Harrison’s aggressiveness. It is alleged that he then broke down the door, destroyed her cell phone, and then smacked her across the face. Tibbott again called the police after Harrison left the house.
Now, by all accounts, Harrison was contrite and highly remorseful for his actions. And, for Rooney—a devout Catholic—the fact that Harrison’s bout of rage stemmed from his desire to, in his mind, do the right thing was undeniably an integral element in his, and the team’s, decision not to formally discipline him. This was reflected in his public comments following Wilson’s release:
"What Jimmy Harrison was doing and how the incident occurred, what he was trying to do was really well worth it. He was doing something that was good, wanted to take his son to get baptized where he lived and things like that. She said she didn\'t want to do it."
Taken at face value, Rooney’s remarks are virtually indefensible; of course the desire to baptize your child does not justify slapping anybody in the face. It was not “worth it” to slap Tibbott. Yet it is the very obliviousness of the statement that makes it clear that Rooney simply misspoke. Of course he was not making excuses for Harrison’s actions and suggesting that his rationale for slapping his girlfriend was sound.
However, the context of the situation—a spontaneous, heat of the moment argument regarding a parental matter—does gives some insight, and perhaps some understanding, into the hows and the whys of what took place.
Would, say, Andre Frazier or Keyaron Fox been released with the expediency of Wilson’s hasty dismissal had they done the same thing? The probability of that is high. It would be naïve to suggest that starters and backups are given equal amounts of leniency and understanding.
From a team and public relations standpoint, it is far more worthwhile to withstand the headaches surrounding a starting, Pro Bowl player rather than a fourth-stringer who may very well not even make the roster out of training camp anyway. A player already on the bubble will surely have his bubble burst at the first hint of legal trouble.
And that was Cedrick Wilson’s position when he premeditatedly assaulted the mother of his own child a couple weeks after Harrison. In Wilson’s case, he drove to a restaurant at which he knew his estranged girlfriend, Lindsey Paulat, would be. When he entered the restaurant, he approached her, pushed her on the shoulder, and when she turned around, punched her in the face.
It was clear, certainly to the Rooneys and the Steelers front office, that the circumstances of each incident were distinct enough to justify distinct reactions, as reflected in Dan Rooney’s clarifying remarks that followed the statement quoted above:
"In the situation with James Harrison, he contacted us immediately after his incident and has taken responsibility for his actions. In today\'s decision with Cedrick Wilson, we determined the situation was severe enough to warrant the player being released immediately. We trust that today\'s roster move will indicate our intentions and send a message that we will not tolerate this type of conduct."
Some have intimated after the fact that Wilson also publicly expressed his remorse and, as Harrison, willingly enrolled in an anger management program. What these individuals fail to note, of course, is that Wilson’s mea culpa came the night after the incident—the Steelers had already released him.
What James Harrison did was no more justified, merited, or acceptable than the actions of Wilson. The Steelers were aware of this; but that does not mean that they needed to treat each situation, each player, equally. Each incident required not just a moral decision, but also a business decision.
When the Steelers elected, publicly, to stand by Harrison by keeping him on the roster and not formally punishing him, it was a decision based at least as much on his Pro Bowl season from 2007 and the prospects for his future as on the organization’s belief that he was a better man than his actions suggested. This much cannot be denied. It can also not be denied that his Defensive Player of the Year performance in 2008 helped to sweep the matter under the rug after the fact.
It is equally true that the team’s decision to release Wilson was simplified by the fact that he was an underperforming fourth-string wide receiver whose release would save the team cap space; the fact that the incident occurred after Harrison’s situation likely helped spur the organization into action.
In this instance, perceived consistency with both cases would have clearly been worse than subjecting the team to accusations of double standards. How could the Steelers allow two domestic assault incidents go without punishment? Alternatively, how could they possibly elect to release Harrison two weeks later after Wilson’s incident, in effect admitting to being wrong?
Once the decision to retain Harrison was made, it was made. Wilson’s circumstances should not have been impacted by Harrison’s; they were unrelated outside of a shared time period of a few weeks.
This is not a defense, nor condemnation, of the team’s handling of these two incidents, but rather an explication. I believe that it points toward a consistency within the organization of handling business decisions at it pertains to administering disciplinary actions for the unethical conduct of its players.
Five years later, Harrison and Tibbott remain together, and now have two children. Tibbott is the CEO of The James Harrison Family Foundation, and Harrison continues to be an advocate for charitable events and organizations while still playing at a high level—despite the fact that he will be doing so for the Cincinnati Bengals this season.
Wilson never played a down in the NFL again, and was at risk of not making the roster anyway. In this sense, history may have redeemed the organization’s decisions, despite the unfortunate misstatement that seemed to justify Harrison’s behavior. But rest assured that it will remain a controversial moment in the Steelers’ history for years to come.
That would not be the end of the controversy, however. In the concluding part of this series, Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes, Hines Ward, Alameda Ta’amu, and Chris Rainey all have their own legal incidents, each of which have tested the principles of the Steeler Way.