Remembering Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney

Dan Rooney, the longtime chairman of the NFL Pittsburgh Steelers and Obama-appointed ambassador to Ireland, died on Holy Thursday.

(photo: Register Files)

Dan Rooney, the longtime chairman of the NFL Pittsburgh Steelers, died on Holy Thursday. His funeral Mass is set for Easter Tuesday at St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh.

In various ways, Rooney gave a good witness to his Catholic Faith. He was married for 65 years and he and his wife Patricia had nine children, two of whom preceded their father in death. And he was a daily communicant. I also fondly remember in 2002 when Rooney paid for most of the funeral expenses of legendary Steelers center Mike Webster; he also helped him get NFL disability benefits while Webster was still alive. Yet Rooney—like other NFL owners—was late in coming to terms with the seriousness of the concussion issue, including regarding Webster.

Rooney also became known for advocating employment opportunities for African-American candidates in the NFL, first regarding head-coaching positions and then for general-manager and similar key front-office positions. It became known as the “Rooney Rule.”

As a longtime football fan, I grew up in Detroit and loved the Dallas Cowboys from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. (Particularly loved Quarterback Roger Staubach, himself a very good Catholic.) Which put me at odds for many years with Rooney’s Steelers, who won two close Super Bowl contests against the Cowboys during the 1970s, the second an epic 35-31 battle in Super Bowl XIII.

But in a key way I admired Rooney more than the Cowboys’ leadership, who were one of the first NFL teams to market scantily clad cheerleaders in the early 1970s. In contrast, the Rooneys wouldn’t go that route. The Steeler had more modestly dressed “Steelerettes” in the 1960s, but the Rooneys—Art., Sr. was still at the helm then—discontinued them in 1969. And thankfully—given today’s fashions—Dan made sure they didn’t return.

Knowing the Steelers’ position on this matter, I wrote to Rooney during my time (1993-2007) in Steubenville, Ohio, which is less than an hour from Pittsburgh. A euphemistically described “gentleman’s club” in nearby West Virginia was promoting itself as a “proud sponsor” of the Steelers. Rooney wrote me back, thanking me for alerting him to the misrepresentation of the Steelers’ name. I was subsequently not surprised when Rooney strongly protested a lascivious opening to a “Monday Night Football” game during the 2004 season.

Unfortunately, Rooney was not as responsive when I suggested that the Steelers dump the sexually immoral song “Macarena,” the playing of which had become a staple at their home games. Ditto with some other songs, like one by the rock group AC/DC for which I won’t provide a link.

But what was most disappointing was Rooney’s strong advocacy for President Barack Obama, whose administration national Catholic radio host Al Kresta has aptly noted was the “most hostile” to religious liberty in U.S. history. So much so that Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, Rooney’s own bishop, filed suit against President Obama’s notorious HHS mandate.

Even more egregious was how Rooney supported Obama despite the President’s assault on the fundamental right to life regarding unborn persons, as well as his advocacy and making possible the legalization of same-sex “marriage” because of crucial nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Would that Rooney have learned from and emulated the more faithful witness of his Keystone State Catholic colleague, Governor Bob Casey. Casey was a strong defender of the unborn, playing an important role in a case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court, a case in which Justice Anthony Kennedy defied logic in his swing vote that upheld abortion-on-demand in America. Casey’s pro-life advocacy cost him an opportunity to speak at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, as Democratic leaders wanted no opposition to that fundamental party plank. (Self-disclosure: I’m not a member of any political party.)

In contrast, Rooney was rewarded by President Obama with becoming the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. And even though President Obama left no doubt in his first term where he stood on religious liberty, the human rights of unborn persons and other important matters, Rooney vigorously supported his reelection in 2012, instead of at least staying neutral. Rooney also publicly supported the 2016 Presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, who herself had a distinguished record as an ardent opponent of the Catholic Church.

With the moral clarity that inescapably comes with one’s particular judgment (see CCC 1021-22), Dan Rooney undoubtedly now understands where he fell short in his life. May his family and friends learn from what he did well, and what he didn’t do well. And let us pray for the repose of the soul of our brother in Christ, Dan Rooney.