In searching all the historical data at my disposal, I can’t find one solitary example of a professional athlete suffering two separate accusations of sexual assault over one eight month period. Enter Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, our very own Jackie Robinson of misogyny, arrogance and entitlement. This is a man who thought that an evening of drunken nightclub bathroom “encounters” in Milledgeville, Georgia, with a 20-year-old Georgia college student – while his entourage blocked the door – was a solid plan.
Ben lawyered up only saying that sexual contact with the accuser “was not consummated.” He declined to submit the DNA that the district attorney’s office requested, and despite described “minor” cuts and bruising on the young woman, the DA decided not to press charges. Ocmulgee Circuit District Attorney Fred Bright, when announcing this decision, said gruffly, “If he were my son, the best way I could answer it is, Ben, grow up. Come on, you’re supposed to stand for something.”
That was assumedly supposed to sound tough, but it came off like a paternal scolding: the typical “boys will be boys” defense. That is, if the boys are the right shade of pale. Georgia is the state after all where in 2005 17-year-old Genarlow Wilson (also, incidentally, a high school football star and not so incidentally, African American) was given a mandatory 10-year prison sentence for consensual oral sex with a 15 year old. After two years behind bars, he was released following a 4-3 decision by the Georgia State Supreme Court. The court did not overturn Wilson’s conviction, but ruled that his sentence was “grossly disproportionate". In contrast, Roethlisberger may never have to spend even two minutes in the maximum-security prison that housed Wilson.
But Big Ben’s drama is far from over. He still faces a civil suit from the first round of sexual assault allegations and may possibly in this case as well. It’s this kind of behavior that has the Pro Bowl quarterback wearing out his welcome in Pittsburgh. The Steelers organization believes that they are more than just another franchise. They are Steeler Nation and no player is more important than the honor of the brand.
If Coach Mike Tomlin had a hot young quarterback on the bench, Roethlisberger might be trade bait. Without that option the Steelers chose instead to make an example out of their best receiver, 2009 Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes. Holmes was traded to the Jets for a pittance (a fifth round draft pick). He was also no stranger to off-field trouble and the fact that the Steelers dumped him to a conference rival so unceremoniously is without question a shot across the bow at Big Ben. But this action as well is raising ethical eyebrows. As Jeffrey Chadiha wrote on ESPN.com, “If they go soft on Roethlisberger, it will appear the organization dumped the black guy with issues while the white guy got a slap on the wrist for his mistakes.”
In addition to having to re-earn the respect of his teammates, coaches, fans, and management, Roethlisberger will also have to sit down with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell later this week, which should be about as pleasant as a switchblade-root canal. Goodell holds the power of judge, jury, and executioner: he can suspend players without appeal and even demand that they seek counseling (we can imagine how effective counseling is when ordered by your boss.)
Goodell will be under a microscope to see if he actually exercises this power against Roethlisberger. There has been more than a little rumbling to the effect that the Goodell’s unilateral brand of justice is used exclusively against African American players to show a majority white fan base that the Commish is keeping his “urban” charges in line. Goodell will look like a rank hypocrite if he lets Big Ben skate. In fact, he would look even worse if he does nothing, and then the Rooney family – which owns the Steelers – decides to suspend him on their own.
The mainstream media has also been interrogated for how they’ve covered Big Ben’s year gone wild. Think about how often in the Tiger Woods telenovela journalists and yipping heads said that Tiger “owed” the public an explanation for his private life. Yet with two allegations of sexual violence, the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback has never been hounded for dirty details in the same way.
The “worldwide leader”, ESPN, in particular was criticized last year for under-covering the first rape allegation, initially issuing an infamous "do not report’ memo to reporters. Apparently, ESPN had correct word that there would be no criminal charges and chose to show restraint. That’s all fine and good but it doesn’t explain their absence of restraint as soon as other scandals gurgle for oxygen in the sports world. It also points brazenly to the double standards in sports when white and black athletes are under investigation. White athletes are viewed, judged, dissected as individuals. Black athletes are individually vivisected but then also portrayed as representative of an entire community. Therefore, black athletes who had never seen a dog fight in their lives were asked about Michael Vick as if they all had pit bull tournaments happening in their backyards. No one will be asking Drew Brees if he ever tries to have bodyguard protected sex with 20-year olds. No one will press Peyton Manning on whether a culture of pick up trucks, Kenny Chesney music, and white baseball caps may have led Big Ben down this regrettable road. Such pop-sociological stupidity is a burden white athletes never have to face. In Roethlisberger’s case, criminal prosecution will be another.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]