LATROBE, Pa. – Great athletes are often driven by adversaries. Arnold Palmer had Jack Nicklaus. Bill Russell had Wilt Chamberlain. Larry Bird had Magic Johnson.
Right now, the Pittsburgh Steelers have … NFL commissioner Roger Goodell?
In the aftermath of the four-game suspension quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) suffered before last season and the $100,000 in fines linebacker James Harrison(notes) endured during the season (not to mention a new team fine system for illegal hits adopted this offseason that seems aimed at the Steelers), there is suspicion that Goodell is against the Steelers.
Actually, it's beyond suspicion. It's a belief up in these parts of Western Pennsylvania.
"He is," Steelers safety Ryan Clark(notes) said, straight-faced, serious and without the slightest sense of doubt. The team was so adamant in this belief that it was the only one to vote against ratifying the new collective bargaining agreement as Steelers players symbolically voiced their displeasure over Goodell maintaining control over the personal conduct policy.
But with the season now set to start in just about a month and the Steelers trying to get back to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons and fourth time since 2005, the question for the Steelers is whether putting figurative pictures of Goodell up on the locker room dartboard is productive or a distraction.
"Frankly, I think that's a media-generated issue more than something our players really talk about," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said Saturday evening, as his players went through a spirited short-yardage session at the end of practice. "It's my job to keep the pulse of our team and I don't think that's really an issue."
Perhaps, but between Clark's assessment, Harrison's comments about Goodell in Men's Journal (for which he has apologized) and the CBA vote, the Steelers don't seem to be backing off on Goodell.
That could end up being a good thing. Again, an adversary can drive someone to greater heights of performance.
"I've always preferred guys who are self-starters, but this is football," said Pittsburgh defensive coordinator and Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau, who has spent more than 50 years playing and coaching in the NFL. "Guys tend to play a little harder when they're angry. It's a violent sport, after all."
LeBeau shows the slightest of grins before saying, "Coaches are more than happy to point out when somebody from the other side says or does something that can be interpreted the wrong way, to get your guys a little riled up. It's a coach's version of poetic license."
Harrison doesn't smile very much and just bringing up Goodell's name requires delicacy.
"I don't need anybody to be my adversary, to get me motivated to be a better player," Harrison said. Despite getting the day off from practice, Harrison had the look of a guy who had just chewed on a toothpick made of rebar. "I'm motivated every year to become a better player and prove people wrong. All those people who say you're getting too old and you can't keep doing it. I want to prove them wrong another year. They're always going to be right at some point, but the longer you can prove them wrong …"
You hesitate to point out to Harrison that the doubters are actually the very adversaries he doesn't think he needs. But this is like Bluto ranting about Germans and Pearl Harbor in "Animal House." The vital difference is that Harrison is no joke, so you just take the quote, wish Harrison well and move along.
"A lot of times, it's what drives an athlete," Polamalu said. "Whether your adversary is someone at the same position or somebody across the ball or whoever it may be from across all sports, that person can serve as a reminder of what you need to do to push yourself. For me, I've always felt that my greatest adversary was within myself, the person pushing me to work the hardest, even if it meant death.
"It's more of an ego-driven situation. By ego, I mean your own ego driving you to be the best you can, your pride driving yourself."
So can Goodell fit within the parameters of that adversary role?
Polamalu didn't seem too sure about that.
"The commissioner doesn't bother me, he's never fined me," Woodley said. "Now, if I was getting fined $100,000, I'd probably have a different opinion on that, but I'm not in that situation. … When I'm out there playing ball, it doesn't take anyone to get me fired up. I don't need some adversary to drive me to play hard because if you're not fired up when you're out there, somebody is going to knock you out.
"If you're out there thinking about Roger Goodell, you're not thinking about the right things. You're not thinking about the game. You ain't focused on the game the right way."
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