01.26.11

The NFL's Silly Redemption Debate

Is Super Bowl-bound Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, accused in two sexual assaults, a changed man? It's an irresistible storyline—and irrelevant. What matters is he's a winner, says Buzz Bissinger.

The most telling moment of last Sunday’s playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets for the American Football Conference Championship came in the fourth quarter. The Jets were driving to close the score to 24-19. But it was the television shot of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the sidelines that interested me the most. It was all in the eyes, unmoving, not even a single blink, aimed at a faraway distance only he could see.

I found the moment chilling; into my head popped the description a former prosecutor once gave me of a defendant who had committed repeated acts of assault—it too was all in the eyes, what he called “the dead eyes of a great white shark,” always on the prowl for the next victim. Or in the case of Roethlisberger, the habit of getting what he wanted when he wanted because he wanted, even if it meant troubling accusations of sexual assault by a 20-year-old college student in a nightclub last March in Milledgeville, Georgia.

In a videotaped interview, she told police that she was led into a hallway by one of Roethlisberger’s bodyguards, whereupon Roethlisberger himself followed and pulled out his penis, ostensibly with more in mind than letting her see if it was circumcised. So how could any woman, no matter how young, no matter how drunk, no matter how ripe for being taken advantage of, resist such an elegant overture?

He wanted it when he wanted it because he wanted it, and in the nightclub bathroom he allegedly had sex with the woman, powerless to resist, she told investigators, because of his temper and her size, 5-4 and 141 pounds, versus his, 6-5 and 241 pounds, and the fact she was clearly inebriated. The statement she gave seemed pretty damn convincing.

After 500 pages of hemming and hawing by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Roethlisberger was never criminally charged. There were conflicting versions, as there almost always are when a big-time athlete has been accused of sexual assault and the accuser becomes the accused in a matter of seconds. But National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell subsequently suspended Roethlisberger for the first six games of the 2010 regular season, finding that he had facilitated the purchase of alcohol for underage college students who were in all likelihood were already intoxicated, placing both the students and himself at risk.

The contrition of Big Ben has turned into the all too familiar condescension of Big Ben—I am a great athlete and the rest of you are annoying gnats.

What was Roethlisberger thinking on the sideline last weekend? My hunch is not much. He has never struck me as a man of any particular introspection, his style of play far more Sasquatch than silk, a sullen behemoth tough to bring down and almost always able to make completions when it counts.

When he got into his jam in Georgia, he was deft enough to talk the talk and do his best to squirm out of it. Apologies in sports all sound the same anyway, straight out of the mea culpa Constitution they carry for times of crisis—I was young, I was dumb, I apologize to my teammates, I apologize to the fans, I promise never to do something like this again, I have found religion and will from now on attribute every success on the field to God (as if God gives a flying crap about football). Roethlisberger was right on target when he said he was dumb. Given he was 28 when the incident occurred, I’m not so sure about the young part, since unzipping in public is the kind of thing you learn not to do when you’re 6, unless you’re an eternally crude A-hole. But never mind. His suspension was ultimately reduced to four games. Now he is a 60-minute stroke away from tying Tom Brady for the most number of wins by a current quarterback if the Steelers can defeat the Green Bay Packers a week from Sunday in Dallas.

Today is only Thursday, but if you plug in the phrase “Roethlisberger Redemption” into Google, you will find hundreds of stories dedicated to the subject.

It is an understandably irresistible storyline for sportswriters, the bifurcation of Roethlisberger the quarterback on the cusp of Super Bowl history versus Roethlisberger the self-absorbed animal. In 2006 he wrecked his motorcycle in Pittsburgh when a car collided into it, nearly killing himself and also resulting in police charges for riding without a valid license and failing to wear a helmet. Before the accident, his coach at the time, Bill Cowher, warned him of the dangers. But Roethlisberger, of course, didn’t listen. In 2009, a woman in Nevada sued him civilly for sexual assault, which Roethlisberger denies and has resulted in the filing of a countersuit. Then came Georgia.

The fraternity of sports scribblers is divided on the redemption issue. But the debate is silly. The real issue isn’t redemption. It’s whether a player like that, with a track record like that, belongs in the league at all. If the world were a just and moral place, Roethlisberger would be gone. But I am an idiot in even typing the words, since that isn’t how any of us operate, whether it’s sports, finance, politics, medicine, law, police work, marriage, writing, or Chinese parenting using the Bataan Death March as a starter model.

It is all about winning. And the most disturbing part of the saga is that even an organization as storied and classy as the Pittsburgh Steelers succumbed to it. You will not find better owners in all of sports than the Rooney family. Their loyalty to the city of Pittsburgh is unparalleled, and the Steelers, like the Rooneys themselves, embody toughness, strength, and decency. When the latest Roethlisberger incident surfaced, there were reports that the Steelers immediately put out feelers to trade him. But it never happened, no doubt because whatever Roethlisberger isn’t, he is a remarkable winner.

With the Georgia incident nearly a year old, the contrition of Big Ben has turned into the all too familiar condescension of Big Ben—I am a great athlete and the rest of you are annoying gnats. Earlier this week he was yukking it up with the reporter boys and girls, telling jokes and holding court.

The good news is that 30 years from now, nobody will remember Ben Roethlisberger. His winning touch won’t mean a thing. There will be no reporters suckling at his tit. He will be gone and forgotten, except perhaps by the college student whose life he so clearly traumatized on a March night in Milledgeville, Georgia.

But maybe time has come to let bygones be bygones. Maybe Big Ben is a different Big Ben. So good luck in Super Bowl XLV.

May the Packers break your legs on the first series of downs.

Which will prove there is indeed a God who cares about football.

Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August . He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.