Steeler Nation divided over 'Big Ben'

April, 15, 2010
4/15/10
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Ben RoethlisbergerAP PhotoBen Roethlisberger has brought two championships to Pittsburgh, but has also faced two sexual assault allegations.
AFC North blog reader Paul Carson from Durango, Colo., eloquently summarized the complicated and emotional tug-of-war quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has created within Steeler Nation. Carson writes:
"I am a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan. That being said, enough is enough. I honestly feel disappointed to the core by Ben Roethlisberger. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy what he has brought to the field with the Steelers. I also love the fact that the Steelers have won two Super Bowls with him at quarterback. However, the embarrassment that he has cast upon the organization and the fan base with his continuous acts of stupidity overwhelm me."

Paul is one of many Pittsburgh followers currently caught in the Roethlisberger whirlwind. In a matter of just four years, "Big Ben" has gone from a local hero to being the most polarizing athlete in Pittsburgh, and lines are clearly being drawn within one of the NFL's largest and most loyal fan bases.

One faction is "fed up," "disgusted," and "frustrated" with Roethlisberger's recent actions, which have led to two sexual assault allegations in less than a year. Another group has wiped the slate clean with Roethlisberger since no criminal charges were filed.

But a majority of Steelers fans appear to be caught somewhere in between, not knowing what to think at this point of their $100 million quarterback.

Even Roethlisberger admitted Monday during his statement that he has lost the public's trust.

"I absolutely want to be the leader this team deserves, valued in the community and a role model to kids," Roethlisberger said. "I have much work to do to earn this trust. And I'm committed to improving and showing everyone my true values."

To get a gauge of where Roethlisberger currently stands, the AFC North blog collected various opinions this week from Steeler Nation. They ranged from one extreme to the other, and we're going to try to cover all the bases of this complex topic.

A group lost

It's apparent Roethlisberger has lost a healthy number of supporters after his most recent off-the-field incident in Milledgeville, Ga. These are fans who may have been on the fringe with Roethlisberger before but had enough after the second sexual assault allegation against him in less than a year. Roethlisberger learned Monday that the district attorney in Milledgeville, Ga., would not file charges.

"I will always be a Steeler fan, but unless Big Ben changes I'll never be a fan of his," writes Paul Rainey of Youngstown, Ohio. "Give me Charlie Batch or Dennis Dixon now."

The trust factor was significant for most Steelers fans who said they're fed up with the two-time Super Bowl winner. There is a certain decorum Steeler Nation and the franchise expect from their high-profile athletes and, to date, Roethlisberger hasn't met those expectations. He could pay in the form of a suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, which would also hurt his team.

Some football fans who are upset with Roethlisberger chose to vent by comparing him with other local athletes. Said Josh from Virginia:
"There is a man in Pittsburgh who gets it, a man who understands what it means to deal with pressure and expectations, [and] a man who knows what it means to be the face of a franchise. That man is Sidney Crosby. Yes, that's right, the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ben Roethlisberger doesn't get it. Ben will never get it because he is too stupid to understand what Sidney Crosby has known since he was a child."

This is the portion of Steeler Nation that is most upset and probably lost for Roethlisberger. They've given up after repeated examples of poor judgment, and it probably won't matter how many touchdowns he throws next season.

"I'm embarrassed," Clive from Pittsburgh said. "I'm embarrassed that my team, as class act a franchise as there is in all of sports has been blemished by his lack of intelligent decision-making. Fool me once..."

Clean slate

Those in Steeler Nation who defend Roethlisberger often mention he has never been charged with any crimes. Others cite the two championships he's brought to the city and the fact that, when it comes to football, Roethlisberger does what he's paid to do very well.

"He's a football player. His responsibility is to know the playbook and to win football games," writes Dennis from De Pere, Wis. "He is free to live his life just like every other American citizen. I'll still wear his jersey proudly, unlike all the holier-than-thou types who feel it is up to them to decide how he should live his life."

Dennis raises an often-debated topic: Is Roethlisberger, as a high-profile athlete, responsible for being a role model?

You cannot avoid the fact that many people look up to Roethlisberger. The Steelers also are a very public entity that pays Roethlisberger extremely well. It's only natural that a huge contract garners attention and puts him as one of the faces of the organization.

Yet this is the portion of Steeler Nation that is most accepting. This group hopes Roethlisberger can be a model citizen. But if not, these fans are willing to look the other way as long as Roethlisberger does his job and is able to perform on the football field.

"Social issues don't bother me," writes Ed from Simi Valley, Calif. "Big Ben is a football player and that's his job. The commissioner is not the Pope. If not found guilty of anything he should be left alone."

Added Dustin from Manhattan, Kan.: "I see no reason to be overly upset with him. Sure it's frustrating ... However, at the end of the day he committed no crime and I can't forget the two Super Bowls he has brought to Pittsburgh."

Shape up or ship out

Here is some good news for Roethlisberger when it comes to Steeler Nation: A majority or responses in our AFC North inbox were in the "shape-up-or-ship-out" category. It's a very large group caught inside a gray area.

Yes, these fans are extremely aggravated and disappointed in Roethlisberger. Yet many are not willing to completely separate themselves and give up on No. 7 just yet. This means a large sector of Pittsburgh's fan base is still holding out hope that Roethlisberger, 28, finally matures and learns from his mistakes.

But it's also clear that patience is wearing thin, even with this loyal group. Matt Lovinski from Wintersville, Ohio, writes:
"I think 'a short leash' is an accurate description for most Steeler fans. It's been one thing after another with Ben, and as a fan, I wish for the Steelers to represent themselves with class and character both on and off the field. If this hasn't served as a wake up call for Roethlisberger, I'm not sure what might at this point. Perhaps a uniform change."

Many mentioned that Roethlisberger having a productive, Pro Bowl-caliber season would go a long way to placing him back in the good graces of this group. Because of those factors, a case can be made that this is the most important season of Roethlisberger's career.

"It's as simple as this: Winning heals a broken heart," writes Mike from Moon, Pa. "If Big Ben has a good year and the Steelers make the playoffs and go as far as the AFC Championship Game, then all will be forgotten or forgiven."

Roethlisberger finds himself at a crossroads. Constantly putting the Steelers' organization in a bad light has him in a pressure-packed situation, where the bar is now very high to perform in 2010.

The Steelers obviously wouldn't have the same level of tolerance for a second-string center. But even as a franchise quarterback with world-class ability, Roethlisberger appears to be down to his last opportunity with a proud franchise and its dedicated and rabid fan base. Nick from Pittsburgh writes:
"Ben better shape up quick. All my life, we've seen the Steelers have hardly any off-field problems, then all of the sudden, Big Ben is nothing but a problem. If he doesn't mature and grow up quick, then get rid of him.

"Pittsburgh deserves much more than having Ben as the face of one of the proudest franchises in the history of the game. I don't think he understands how good he has it right now."

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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