Thursday, April 22, 2010

The bell tolls for Big Ben

Once again, one of our premier athletes is in the public spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

(ALERT: if you don't like sports, don't worry ... this isn't necessarily about sport as much as it is about sports people who seem hellbent on squandering their privilege).

Today, we discuss Ben Roethlesberger, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, who has been suspended for six games by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell because of sexual assault accusations -- even though those allegations didn't pass muster to the point where he was formally charged.

I support this -- though I'd have preferred, say, an 11-game suspension. But that's only because the Patriots have to play the Steelers in Week 10, and, well, we probably have a better shot of beating them without without Big Ben.

But that's provided that Big Ben is still with the Steelers ... something that's certainly not a given. There's been rumbling that the Steelers, a family-owned team conscious of their athletes' obligation to hold themselves to high standards, might try to deal Roethlesberger and wash their hands of him.

If they do ... good for them. The National Football League may be a collection of private organizations, but all sports franchises are unique in that they're also public institutions. They stay in business due to the largesse of people who buy their tickets and TV packages, patronize their luxury boxes, and spend millions of dollars to advertise during their games and in their stadia.

And we won't even get into the fact that, in this, the 21st century (and in the second decade of it already) there are still people in this world naive enough to think athletes are role models.

So, what Ben Roethlesberger does in a Georgia bar is absolutely relevant to the survival of the Steelers as a public trust in Pittsburgh. And if the Rooney family feels that having a quarterback with Big Ben's baggage -- even if he's as physically talented as Roethlesberger -- compromises its standing in the Pittsburgh community, well hooray for them.

The Steelers have already jettisoned another of the principal components of their 2009 Super Bowl victory when they sent receiver Santonio Holmes (he caught the TD pass from Roethlesberger that won the title for them) to the Jets after he violated the league's substance abuse policy.

(This, of course, speaks ill of the Jets, which is fine by me, as I generally don't need much ammunition to despise them. So this is like an unexpected New England clam bake).

This isn't to say that Ben Roethlesberger doesn't deserve to play in the NFL. He just needs a timeout. And, perhaps, he needs to be sent a message by his employers that, as talented as he is, he's not sacrosanct. He needs to be held to minimal standards of human behavior, and that if he can't meet them, he's perfectly welcome to ply his trade somewhere else.

Maybe a trade to some god-forsaken NFL outpost, one that has less of a chance to get to the Super Bowl than I do, might fix Big Ben's wagon.

And personally, and even though the state of Georgia refused to press charges on this latest escapade, I think guys like Big Ben need to sit an entire year. I'm not sure six games is enough.

If you're not sure, exactly, what's so wrong with what Ben Roethlesberger did, then cut and paste this link ...

I mean, could you at least get a room? We impeached a U.S. president whose transgressions weren't even that gross (though fellatio on the Oval Office is pretty darn lurid, when you think about it).

Now, one supposes that you take some of this with a grain of salt. But there does seem to be a pretty consistent story here ... one that has Roethlesberger walking around a bar, drunk, and going into a restroom to have sex. In fact, if these allegations are true, one wonders why charges were not filed. Could it be that, despite this being the 21st century, second decade, we still cut athletes way too much slack when it comes to them skating on behavior that would land the rest of us in jail, without bail, awaiting trial?

(It also makes one wonder to what degree dog fighting is a more evil transgression than herding a woman into a restroom to have sex with her. I'm sure Michael Vick wonders the same thing; I'm even more sure Vick is following this case closly; and still more sure that Vick understands America's biases and prejudices just fine, and notices that Big Ben's skin is somewhat lighter than his own).

The above aside aside, there's no excuse for any of it (Vick's transgressions included). Violence is violence, and physical intimidation is physical intimidation. And if you're an athlete whose body can safely be called a weapon (have you ever seen Roethlesberger throw a block? He's a truck, for heaven's sake), then using it as a weapon for any purpose other than the one it's intended for should be considered a crime.

And that includes intimidating women into having sex with him.

There is, too, the whole notion of athletes as role models. Once upon a time, back when there wasn't nearly the media and spotlight on athletes, this may have been possible. There's plenty of evidence that the legendary Babe Ruth was every bit the carouser and misogynist that any of today's athletes are. The Babe loved to have a good time ... especially at the expense of the ladies.

But reporters covering baseball back in those days were the same as White House correspondents who kept John F. Kennedy's peccadillos under wraps. Suffice it to say, JFK wouldn't have survived today's culture ... and The Babe wouldn't have either.

Somewhere along the way, The Babe would have run into a reluctant participant, shall we say, who would have, then, filed charges. That would have set into motion an entire chain of events that would have ended up similar to this case, or to the Kobe Bryant or Mike Tyson situations. Or maybe one of The Babe's many concubines would have sued him, the way Margo Adams handled the fallout from her affair with Wade Boggs.

The problem is that athletes have been enabled all their lives ... and by people who should have known better. One of the things that caught my eye in the whole Phoebe Prince bullying case (in South Hadley, MA), is that the captain of the football team was involved.

That pretty much tells the whole story right there. In the pecking order of high school life, the captain of the football team is at the absolute top of the chain. No one with an ounce of sense is going to take him on -- and that includes faculty members either too timid, or too educated as to the ways of life in the average American high school, to try.

This is the culture. It allows the NFL, for example, to allow Ray Lewis, a self-admitted, convicted felon, to not only play in a Super Bowl but to be the MVP of it. It allows a slew of University of Nebraska players to commit crimes on a Tuesday and show up to play on a Saturday. The situation got so bad out there that the derisive nickname for the team went from Cornhuskers to Corn-victs. Coach Tom Osborne had to step down. His reward? He got elected to Congress (thank God as a Republican and not a Democrat).

Look around ... even if you're not into sports. Where, for example, does the Washington Wizards' Gilbert Arenas get the idea that whipping gun out and brandishing it at a teammate he's arguing with over poker money is anywhere close to being acceptable? Where does the New York Giants' Plaxico Burress get the notion that's perfectly OK to walk into a bar with a loaded gun in his pants ... and then be careless enough with it that it goes off (thankfully, Karma prevailed on this one, and he shot himself in the leg, and not some innocent patron).

The list of Athletes Behaving Badly is endless. And it's because, for too long, we've allowed them to become so enabled, and so empowered, by our sheer idol worship of them that they're like runaway trains careening down a hillside.

I like the fact the Goodell, at least, is trying to put a stop to it, and hold athletes' feet to the fire. His posture on these things makes baseball commissioner Bug Selig, who, I swear, gets into a debate with himself over what kind of coffee to buy in the morning, look like a total fraud. Thanks to Selig, every record set in baseball from hereon out will be susceptible to suspicions of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.

It's bad enough that athletes command such ridiculously high salaries (especially in relation to people in society who contribute so much more on a daily basis). But, as the movie says, that's entertainment. That's the American way. That's capitalism. The free enterprise system. The market defines everything (which is something all these grouchy sports talk show callers -- most of them, I'm sure, love the free enterprise system, warts and all -- should perhaps consider the next time they complain about overpriced athletes).

But can we please stop treating them as if they walk on water too? Can we please, even when they're in high school, stop covering for them, making excuses for them, giving them special dispensation solely because of their athletic abilities?

Maybe if we do, then guys like Ben Roethlesberger won't go through life thinking they're entitled to go after anything they lay their eyes on -- including women -- in the crudest of ways.

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