Roethlisberger, like every other egomaniac sports hero, can continue to do whatever the hell he wants—because he can. Because we let him.
Will a Super Bowl win redeem Ben Roethlisberger?
It’s “an understandably irresistible storyline,” author Buzz Bissinger writes, but ultimately one that’s “silly.”
He’s right. For Roethlisberger—accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student in March of last year, and a 31-year-old casino host in 2008—to achieve “redemption” through winning the Super Bowl is a bit far-fetched. No, achieving redemption would take actually mean doing something positive or changing who he is as a person. Maybe he could volunteer for RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), like ex-WWF wrestler Mick Foley (who volunteered, I should add, out of concern, not because he committed a crime against them).
But winning the Super Bowl? I don’t follow the logic. It may cloud his past transgressions, or distract fans and the media from them, but it does little to vindicate him. Even if he volunteers for RAINN, God knows if it’s a PR stunt or a true change of heart on his part; I’d assume the former.
We love fitting people and issues into cookie-cutter clichés, right or wrong, good and bad. It requires little to no thinking. For our athletes, we have the path to redemption down pat: player X cheats on spouse/does steroids/kills dogs/drives drunk. This is an outrage, and he must do something to pay for this.
Rest assured, his PR people have been hard at work. He’ll do some community service, maybe donate to charity, and issue a “formal apology.” He might even simply win the big game. He has achieved redemption, the pundits announce, and now we can continue worshiping him with a clean conscience.
This is why the PR people for Michael Vick and Tiger Woods are geniuses. When you can’t handle yourself, you just hire someone else to do it for you.
Imagine this scenario: after winning his third Super Bowl ring, Big Ben sits in the back room of some restaurant, celebrating with his buddies. He’s been showered with praise for days now; everyone wants to interview him. He’s the man. Everyone’s forgotten those little sexual-assault incidents.
He guffaws and slaps the table. “Who knew?” he says. “All I had to do was win.” And, unfortunately, he’s right. Roethlisberger, like every other egomaniac sports hero, can continue to do whatever the hell he wants—because he can. Because we let him.
The Last Boy is author Jane Leavy’s new book about Mickey Mantle. It’s an excellent read because Leavy shows us a full person—not the “Myth of the Mick”—but an amazing athlete with a generous heart, who is also, in many ways, deeply insecure, fearful, and flawed. Like all of us.
Leavy grew up in the Bronx worshiping the Yanks and their star center fielder. She became a sportswriter, and in 1983, she finally had the opportunity to interview Mantle, who was working as a greeter in an Atlantic City casino. After a night of eating and drinking, she finally had the Hall of Famer alone.
As she writes in The Last Boy, things didn’t go as planned.
Just as I was about to ask about his son Billy, I felt his hand on my knee, then on the inside of my thigh. A knee is open to interpretation; a thigh means business.
His hand was thick, sure, and entitled, casually asserting its prerogative the way it would over a coffee mug. And that hand was moving inexorably upward when Mickey listed to his left and passed out dead drunk in my lap.
With the help from a cocktail waitress (“Oh, fuck, not again”), Leavy drags Mantle to the elevator bank, where he props himself against a mirror, struggling to maintain balance.
“You comin’ upstairs with me tonight, Jane?”
“Not tonight, Mick.”
He seemed neither surprised nor disappointed, as if the rebuff was as expected as the offer. “Oh, well,” he said, cheerfully, “y’know what they call me, dontcha?”
“No, Mick, I don’t.”
“Well,” he drawled, “they call me Mighty Mouse. ’Cause I’m hung like him.”
He was still vertical when the door slid shut on his grin.
I went up to my room and cried.
For Leavy, and many other Americans, Mantle was her hero. To see him in this state was devastating—almost unbearable.
It’s something we can all relate to: that crushing moment when we realize someone isn’t who we expected him to be. For as long as we can, we’ll try to block out any negative press or whispers of bad behavior. We want to believe, deep down, that this was a wonderful human being.
When you’re the star high-school athlete, the town worships you. In college, everyone on campus recognizes you—you can get into any party, you can have your choice of women. As your draft stock rises, agents pester you with text messages. ESPN wants to interview you. Maybe you sign your first big contract. Maybe your absent father all of a sudden reappears in your life. Soon you’re surrounded by sycophants—publicists, agents, family members, friends. You can do no wrong. You can say no wrong.
Everyone wants a piece.
So does it surprise anyone, then, that Roethlisberger naturally assumed a Georgia co-ed wanted a piece as well? (And that if she didn’t, well, she should have?)
Or that Mickey Mantle would figure, What the hell, I’m drunk, I’ll try to hook up with this broad who’s interviewing me?
Plenty of shitfaced women—and men—in bars all over the country have cherished the opportunity to hang out with professional athletes. We mortals will snap pictures and take videos and send them all over the Internet. Screaming fanboys and -girls are so dime-a-dozen that to those we’ve lionized into the stratosphere, everything about us is disposable, insignificant. And Ben Roethlisberger can expose himself to and force himself on a 20-year-old woman because she’s not entitled to the dignity and respect reserved for men like Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers QB is no different from thousands and thousands of professional athletes who have womanized over the years. But he is different in that a) he’s arrogant, boorish, and maybe just dumb enough to disregard the consequences of sexual assault; and b) he’s successful enough for people to give a shit about his status as an NFL star.
And damn well they should—not because the game itself matters, but because of the precedent set by this six-game slap on the wrist.
It’s a leftover from childhood, from the time when those guys on TV, who were so strong they could hit the ball out of Fenway Park, were superheroes. When all adults could do no wrong—our parents were gods—and only when we matured did we recognize their flaws.
We crave our golden boys, but (aside from a Tim Tebow here and there) most are far from it. They may be human, but unlike most humans, many star athletes never grow up. Someone is always picking up the tab, dealing with the finances, telling them where to go and what to say, and driving them home when they’re blacked out.
Then Brett Favre sends dong shots to Jets Gameday host Jenn Sterger. Rick Pitino has sex under the table of a Louisville restaurant with the equipment manager’s wife. Both Pitino and Favre are married.
How could they?
Oh, right—because Rick Pitino is still the head coach of Louisville. Brett Favre was still the starting quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. Both of their wives have stayed with them, and both Favre and Pitino will make millions well after they retire.
Merlyn Mantle, the Mick’s much-maligned wife, became well aware of his increasingly blatant acts of infidelity—yet she stuck by his side until the bitter end, because, as Jane Leavy writes, “the only thing she ever wanted to be was Mrs. Mickey Mantle.”
Buzz Bissinger writes of Roethlisberger, “May the Packers break your legs on the first series of downs. Which will prove there is indeed a God who cares about football.”
The sad truth is, Bissinger helped to create monsters like Big Ben.
We all did. We are all enablers, we are all guilty. We are all cogs in a great machine of idolatry and absolution, power and abuse.
Bissinger, after all, who wrote a book about Tony La Russa, further elevating the manager’s fame after having already won multiple World Series titles. And it was you and I who bought it, read it, and revered the guy. Is it any surprise, then, that when La Russa was arrested for a DUI, he asked the police, “Do you know who I am?”
I have no problem following, rooting, and analyzing the performance of these athletes. It’s entertainment, it’s fun, and it’s competition.
But think of the year in sports, the biggest stories of 2010—and Rex Ryan’s feet and Tiger Woods’ sex addiction are right up there with the Giants winning the World Series and the Lakers winning the NBA Championship. Without these “scandals,” Deadspin and the Smoking Gun wouldn’t exist in the way they do, while TV ratings on ESPN’s endlessly banal, opinion-fueled programming would plummet.
Every time we pine for a quote, beg for an autograph, write a story, stick by them when they’re unfaithful, snap a photograph, it further fuels this behavior, reinforcing the notion that our athletes are different, special, desired, exempt …
Yet we love it. We inhale the post-scandal analysis, scour the web for the clips, watch them over and over again, gossip about it with friends—and we’re still talking about Ben Roethlisberger raping this woman, almost one year later.
So let’s not righteously stand on our pulpit and hope for Ben to fail next Sunday—as if his losing a game might suggest cosmic justice has occurred.
And when our athletes continue to cheat on their wives, take steroids, get drunk, and do drugs, let’s not act surprised or expect any better.
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