Wins don't give Ben Roethlisberger a free pass
Ben Roethlisberger isn't a redemption story just because he's reached the Super Bowl.
Americans love to turn their athletes into heroes. And we sportswriters are sometimes guilty of providing storylines when they don't arrive on schedule. This week, the Super Bowl is a major deadline.
So I'm a little wary of stories about the Pittsburgh quarterback.
Roethlisberger has had a number of interactions with women that have involved courts or police to one degree or another. The most troubling came last April, when Roethlisberger celebrated his 28th birthday in Milledgeville, Ga.
The prosecutor couldn't recover enough DNA from a dingy bathroom, and the alleged victim declined to press charges. But the police report from that night has the handwritten account of a woman who said she was trapped there as Roethlisberger had sex with her -- while bodyguards kept her friends from coming to help her.
"No, this is not okay," she said she told him.
To his credit, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell didn't let himself off the hook when the prosecutor said there wasn't enough evidence to charge Roethlisberger. The NFL investigated the matter itself and suspended the quarterback for Pittsburgh's first six games (the suspension was later reduced to four).
Now the Steelers are in the Super Bowl. What that means is that reporters will want to write about what happened, but will have a hard time using phrases like "alleged rape." Instead, you might hear a lot of references to "off-the-field distractions."
So weak. You cannot lump DWIs, drug use, alleged rape and assault charges into the same phrase you'd use for trying to talk and text at the same time.
For the record, what happened also does not count as "overcoming adversity." That's when you successfully rehab a gruesome compound fracture, like Seattle's Leon Washington, and go on to regain your status as a formidable kickoff returner. It's not when you act like the villain in some film noir and then win a bunch of football games.
Maybe we need to invent some new terms for antiheroes -- are you listening Antonio Cromartie, you wordsmith? -- so that players like Big Ben, Mike Vick, Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant can be discussed without being idolized.
Playing a good game and leading a good life are two distinct things -- and not every athlete needs to be Man of the Year. But that gets confused a lot when we talk about sports.
Santonio Holmes is one athlete who refused to play the good-guy role the league -- and the media -- wanted to assign him. The wide receiver was suspended for four games at the start of the 2010 season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. The Steelers traded him to the Jets on the cheap, and when Holmes came back from his suspension, reporters asked what he learned from the experience.
He didn't let anybody write the redemption story.
"To look in your eyes and be honest with you, not one percent," Holmes said in response to a question about whether he'd changed during his time off. "I've been the same person since I stepped foot in this NFL, I'll continuing being the same person until I leave."
Holmes' point: Admire him for what he can do on the field, but don't try to make him a poster child for a D.A.R.E. campaign. One might even respect Holmes for refusing to be shoe horned into a cuddly narrative arc simply to improve his public image.
Roethlisberger hasn't talked publicly about what happened in Milledgeville. It's hard to know if he's changed, or how he has processed the events of that night. Has he undergone a personal transformation in the aftermath of the scandal? Has he decided he needs to more thoroughly script his media interactions?
Nobody likes all those blanks. It's tempting to try to fill them in for Roethlisberger.
Maybe one day he will found a church, underwrite programming on NPR, pay for thousands of impoverished kids to go to college, cure malaria and fund a league-wide program called No Means No.
On that day, everyone can write that Ben Roethlisberger has redeemed himself.
But winning another Super Bowl shouldn't be part of that storyline.