Culture And Criticism

Ben Roethlisberger Is Not Tiger Woods, And Other Role-Model Matters

Ben Roethlisberger at practice on April 19, 2010.

Ben Roethlisberger practiced with the Pittsburgh Steelers on April 19, 2010. Jared Wickerham/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Ben Roethlisberger is not Tiger Woods. Ben Roethlisberger has absolutely not one thing to do with Tiger Woods.

Let me amplify: Allegations that you have assaulted a college student in a bathroom are not on the same scale as allegations about even the most distasteful, lengthy, deceitful string of consensual affairs. One, if true, is a violation of your wife's trust. The other, if true, is a violent crime. There's absolutely no comparison.

I was originally not inclined to say anything about Ben Roethlisberger at all, simply because to me, it was self-evident that public interest in whether or not he had assaulted an intoxicated girl who's not even old enough to legally drink was perfectly understandable. It didn't even seem like a question — not in this case. This wasn't about salacious details of somebody's spicy private life; this was about an accusation of violence.

I saw the story very differently, I have to say, than sports commentator Frank Deford, who wrote today that, in effect, all athletes are role models, but some of them are good role models and some are bad, so it doesn't really matter. "Don't you just stop caring whether they behave?" he asks.

I think that word "behave" is probably exactly where we part ways. Do I care whether they're loud, boisterous drunks? No, probably not. Do I care whether they're faithful to their wives? No. Do I care whether they're good tippers? I do not.

Why not? Because as a sports fan, those things don't interfere with my ability to take a rooting interest in a football player. I can still root for you even if you swagger around clubs bragging about how great you are, or you cavort with strippers, or you generally act like a majestically obnoxious jerk I would not choose for my friend (or my boyfriend). I don't expect sainthood or model behavior. I don't really care whether you "behave."

But if what this particular accuser and her friends say is true — honestly, even if most of what everybody seems to agree is true is true — then this isn't about whether anybody "behaved." You wouldn't look at this guy and say, "Oh, behave." It's not about setting an example.

What it is in fact about, after the jump.

Deford comments, along these lines, that it's bizarre that sports figures are asked to be "sweeter than the average angel," and perhaps that's true. But for me, that has nothing to do with Ben Roethlisberger. The average angel — in fact, I will say the average non-angel — does not separate a semi-conscious college student from her friends in the back of a bar and have sex with her, whether he believes it constitutes a crime or not. Is that what happened? I don't know. But if it is, then yes — I care.

If you're an athlete, you can ask me to put aside your language, your arrogance, your gambling debts, what kind of a husband you are, or the possibly ridiculous ways you spend your money. But you can't ask me to pretend I don't know this. I have read the story, and I can't watch you play and act like I haven't.

I do agree that the NFL probably shouldn't bring the concept of a "higher standard" into it, because ... higher than what? From whom would this be acceptable?

If you want to argue that the NFL shouldn't act on any situation where there isn't a criminal conviction because they don't know for sure what happened, then that's a separate argument. (And I would entirely agree that there's no way at this point to draw conclusions about exactly what happened and what didn't — beyond the fact that Roethlisberger seems to admit that he did, well, something he shouldn't have.)

But if the argument is that I should not care about this, even if it's true, because it's better to "let the thugs play," I just cannot agree. I promise, I have absolutely no desire to say "Let the thugs play." Men need not be thugs. It's that simple to me. And if they are thugs, then I reserve the right to care, and to change my opinion of them, and to think less of them, even if they are actors or musicians or football players.

I don't need us to be friends, but I reserve the right to disqualify thugs, if only because thuggery, like most forms of lowlife behavior, thrives on the cynicism that would write it off as inevitable and therefore unworthy of attention.

We are asked what suspending Roethlisberger is supposed to accomplish: "Does it teach little, impressionable children a lesson? Is it going to make other football players pause and think about being a role model late at night when they are on the cusp of committing mayhem?"

I would answer both of these questions ... "Yeah, maybe."

Maybe it's a teaching moment for a kid who idolizes Ben Roethlisberger. Maybe it's a teaching moment for a girl who doesn't look out for herself when she's in a bar. And indeed, maybe the next guy thinks, "Trying to locate the precise line between 'This underage college student is capable of giving consent' and 'This underage college student is too intoxicated to give consent' is not worth being suspended, so maybe I'll choose a fully conscious adult for my next bathroom tryst."

I would have absolutely no problem with that.

Given that Roethlisberger apparently won't be hearing much more from Georgia prosecutors and police — following what The Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggests was not much of a police investigation — maybe his six-game suspension is the most unpleasant thing that will happen to him.

But I know who Ben Roethlisberger is. I know this story. And I'm not disturbed by it because professional athletes can't act like this; I'm disturbed by it because nobody can act like this.

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