Shrink rap: Dr. Phil weighs in on rivalry

The Baltimore Sun

There are few relationships as dysfunctional as the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. So who better to figure this out than Dr. Phil McGraw?

I'm glad I got you when I did, Dr. Phil. A group of men from Pittsburgh are about to square off with a group of men from here in Baltimore. Needless to say, the sides are not fond of each other. In fact, each side wants to make sure the other isn't even alive a couple of weeks from now. Don't these sound like prime candidates for mediation or counseling?

You'd never think there'd be anything positive about hating anybody or anything, but I got to tell you, I think some rivalries are great medicine for America. In this context, I don't perceive it to be mean-spirited at all. It seems to me it's a healthy passion. And I just love it. I love the controversy that surrounds them. Even if there's a blown call in a big game, that'll give people something to talk about for a year. It's such a good distraction for people.

These two sides rely on physical activity to vent their pent-up emotions. Is this really a productive way to channel these feelings?

It is to a degree that it can really heighten performance. When I was playing in high school and for a short time in college, our coaches were always big about bulletin-board statements. Somebody on the other team makes incendiary comments, and it goes right to the bulletin board. It puts more energy, more fun, more passion into it.

We, the fans, live vicariously through those players. So when those players get all fired up - they're making statements, throwing down the gauntlet and challenges - we all puff our chest up like we're ready to put on the helmet, lace up the cleats and knock somebody into next week.

What's interesting about these men in Pittsburgh and Baltimore is their jobs require them to get together twice a year. They don't have the option of simply ignoring each other. Have you similarly encountered people - clients or guests - who had no choice but to regularly confront their rival or enemy?

We all have. We call it Christmas. My dad used to say the holidays are so interesting because it's once or twice a year you get a bunch of people who don't get along that well, don't have much in common anymore, and you jam them into too small of a space for a couple of days. And we call it fun. So the corollary might be your family reunion, holiday, high school reunion.

You played football at the University of Tulsa. And, growing up in Dallas, you've seen great rivalries up close - Oklahoma and Texas, Redskins and Cowboys, Oprah and Letterman. How healthy is it to carry such animosity with you everywhere you go, particularly to the workplace?

Well, in this instance, I think it's great, really. It is a constructive distraction. If you've ever been in Dallas, which is the neutral site for Texas-Oklahoma weekend, the whole city is alive and electric. Everyone is wearing jerseys of one color or another, they're all downtown at night, they're on opposite street corners chanting. There's always some idiot who goes too far and does something stupid, but for 99 percent of the people, it's great fun. It's a distraction from your problems; it's a distraction from the tedious aspects we all have to our lives.

I went to high school in Kansas City, and, boy, when Kansas City and Oakland were playing back then, that was such a huge rivalry, and everyone was excited about it. Same in high school. We went undefeated for three years I was in high school. We always had these two rivals in our conference, and you lived for those games. It's why you existed. It came to define you back then. When it came to that big night, there's just no feeling like going down that ramp, knowing what's waiting for you. Still today, I'll be pecking around on the computer, I'll Google them and pull it up just to see how we're doing against them nowadays.

We're talking about some unique individuals here. One of the Pittsburgh guys has a reputation for cheap hits when no one's looking. And some of the Baltimore guys have bragged about placing bounties on some of their enemies. Have you ever had guests who disliked someone so much they resorted to bounties?

No, not that they would admit to. I've often wondered, though, if there was price on some of the guys' heads we have sitting up there. Talk is cheap, though. I really, really hope and choose to believe that most players out there will talk trash, but there aren't very many out there who'd actually go for a knee or for a cut block or take a cheap shot to hurt somebody.

They may see them as rivals because they stand between them and what they work all year to get to. But they don't need to get dirty. Maybe I'm naive, but I choose to believe there isn't a lot of cheap-shot headhunting going on.

Well, I'm like you, Dr. Phil, and I want people to find peace. How would you advise two groups with such deep-seated feelings to overcome their past and improve their relationship?

I don't think in sports you necessarily need to do that. It's territorial pride on the line, but we're not talking about Crips and Bloods shooting each other on sight. It's so interesting to me when you hear people - and I've spent weeks at a time in Baltimore and weeks at a time in Pittsburgh back when I had a real job - but it's just like in Dallas: When they talk about their team, they say "we." They feel they're a member of the team, and I think it's great that it lasts all year long.

Well, maybe they can at least find a common ground. For example, if both groups can agree that Cleveland smells like the trash can stationed near the exit of a carnival thrill ride, could that bring Baltimore and Pittsburgh closer together? Or is that just wallowing further in negativity?

I have a feeling that wouldn't bring them closer together a quarter of an inch. That's OK, though. As long as things aren't destructive, they should be fun. Maybe that's me talking more as a jock than as a shrink, though.

points after

* KO for good: : Hasim Rahman still steps through the ropes, but there are few other signs that he's still an active boxer. One has to wonder not how much longer he'll continue but why he would choose to continue.

* Safer at yard: : I might deny this when Daniel Cabrera wins 18 games next year, but we should all feel safer attending Orioles games without worrying that everyone at the stadium is at risk of being hit by a pitch.

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