Questions of greatness will consume this Super Bowl weekend as Brady and Manning legacies clash once again. But the real contest for the greatest takes place on the day before the Super Bowl in Canton, Ohio, where former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis is a finalist for induction to the Hall of Fame, the highest NFL honor. And while Tim Tebow has garnered attention for political activism of a smellier kind, Bettis has been doing his own campaigning—for a cause most people can breath easier with.
Since his days on the field (Bettis retired in 2006), Bettis has been an advocate for children suffering from asthma. He has asthma himself, and NFL fans probably remember the catharsis after many of his memorable runs when, whether for a tough-earned five yards or a 50-plus yard break away, he’d end up on the bench with an inhaler pumping into his mouth, trying to catch his breath. Bettis developed the health condition as a young teenager, growing up in Detroit, where the air above is often misted with soot and toxic metals from factory clusters. It didn’t stop him from becoming an outstanding football player both in high school and in close-by Notre Dame for college.
Since a pro, first with the St. Louis Rams and then finally with the Steelers, where he played for 13 years, Bettis amassed a spectacular career on the field, ranking fifth in NFL history for yards rushed and making the Pro Bowl six times before retiring after his 2005 season-capping Super Bowl win, earned in his native Detroit.
Off the field, he raised money and created special programming and camps for children with asthma, a breathing condition that’s grown worse for children over the decades, particularly for children of color. Last year, Bettis took a step beyond, when he teamed with the Environmental Protection Agency to produce a public service announcement in support of their new Mercury and Air Toxics rules [MATS], which will regulate the amount of pollution that large factories can emit. And it’s for this reason alone that Bettis ought to be inducted into the Hall of Fame—if not in Canton, then the Hall of Fame in the minds of those who cherish professional heroism in general.
After a meeting with EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Bettis said, “I don’t think I’m courageous or anything. … She said I was courageous.”
Here’s why he is courageous. When Jackson thanked Bettis for his courage, she also explained to him that he was “going to meet some resistance.”
The Resistance: The Republican Party, not to mention Big Industry in general, which has profited handsomely for decades by not having to control the amount of particulate matter, lead, mercury, dioxides and other pollutants that diminish the quality of the air. These pollutions have harmed the lives of people who live near factories, and mostly without the offending companies paying a dime for the neurological, respiratory and economic damage they’ve caused in thousands of communities from Detroit to Pittsburgh and beyond.
The Republican Party, well funded with lobbying dollars from energy companies that operate the polluting facilities, have been the energy industry’s staunchest defenders, calling not only for a revocation of the MATS rules—House Republicans preemptively passed a bill blocking EPA’s move—but often calling for the shuttering of EPA itself.
The rivalry between EPA and Big Industry is deeper and much more costlier than the most hostile rivalry between any two NFL teams. And Bettis has marched right into the middle of it, despite the fact that companies could pull advertising from the NFL games in which Bettis is a commentator (some have already waged their own anti-MATS commercial campaigns during football games), and despite the fact that he’s trying to raise money for his The Bus Stops Here Foundation, which helps children with asthma. That’s to say nothing of his many endorsement deals, which often scare athletes away from politics of any sort.
Bettis could have taken an easier road, or in NFL terms, picked a weaker schedule. He didn’t need to team with EPA—probably the most electric political football of all federal departments and agencies right now—to continue his advocacy around asthma. He had already been doing so for years without them. He also could have waited until after 2012, side-stepping an election year when every conceivable opponent will be blitzing EPA on every play until November. Keep in mind that Bettis’s work with EPA doesn’t amount to a mere YouTube video. He’s also traveled with EPA officials and the Clean Air Council to meet with Congress members, urging them to support the new stricter mercury rules.
But Bettis understands that the stakes are highest for the kids suffering, and dying, from asthma as well. As he told Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, “This needs to happen sooner than later. … It’s pretty simple. Everybody’s health is at stake.”
Asthma has been a growing problem for children in general, but for children of color it’s more severe, affecting kids who grew up in the ghettos of Detroit, as Bettis did, and children growing up in the White House—President Obama’s daughter Malia suffers from asthma, a condition she’s carried since living in the well-to-do Hyde Park neighborhood of Southside Chicago.
For African American children, the death rate from asthma was seven times higher than that of white children from 2003 to 2005, Bettis’s final three years in the league. African-American children have a 80 percent higher prevalence of asthma than white children. The death rate for Puerto Rican children was 400 percent higher than for whites in 2003. And while Asian-American children have lower asthma rates than white children, they died from it at a 30 percent higher rate than white children.
EPA’s new MATS rules address the kind of pollution that can lead to asthma and other health disorders by requiring coal-powered power plants, incinerators, boilers and other electricity generating facilities to upgrade themselves with equipment that’s called “Utility Maximum Achievable Control Technology,” or UMACT. Along with targeting mercury, which has been linked not only to asthma but also nervous system damage and early development disorders, the rules also aim to control pollutants such as cyanide, lead, acid gas and arsenic, which are linked to similar problems and can cause cancer. EPA anticipates that its new safeguards will prevent 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and lead to 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year. They will also drop premature deaths by as many as 11,000 per year, and 4,700 less heart attacks a year.
The new standards have the additional economic benefits of creating thousands of new short- and long-term jobs for construction workers, who will be needed to help facilities comply. (They have three years to upgrade, with the extension of an additional year if the official deadline is too early to meet.) So you’d think these are rules we could all comfortably live with—you’d think. But Sen. Jim Inhofe, ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works committee, has vowed to overturn them, saying they are “a thinly veiled electricity tax that continues the Obama administration’s war on affordable energy and is the latest in an unprecedented barrage of regulations that make up EPA’s job-killing regulatory agenda.”
Bettis’s position on mercury and toxic air standards is pro-life, but you wouldn’t know it since he doesn’t get the kind of press that Tim Tebow does for his version of pro-life activism. Advocating on behalf of kids with health problems shouldn’t be branded as political, but given the current climate, there’s no way to escape the label. In that context, he’s joined a very tiny pool of NFL “greats” who’ve taken up political causes. Hall of Famers like Jim Brown and Reggie White also took up political causes in their post-NFL years, but both had their own problems—Brown with domestic violence, and White’s own political positions mirrored Tebow’s.
Looking at someone like Muhammad Ali, who’s not without his own personal problems, you find someone whose greatness was achieved not just because of his boxing titles, but because of the positions he took on racism and war. Both of those issues were widely controversial during the 1960s. Making the air cleaner for children to breath and live with shouldn’t be viewed with the same level of controversy. But the political reality has determined otherwise. Bettis hasn’t shied away, which is why he deserves to be ranked with the greatest.