Ben Roethlisberger is once again in hot water. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

If O.J. taught us anything, it’s that the court of public opinion often equals — and sometimes trumps — the court of law.

But for celebrities that have reputations like Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who doesn’t seem to care much about public opinion, the only thing that really matters, it seems, is having a clean record in the eyes of the law.

Because if ‘Big Ben’ were truly concerned with what the public thought of him, he’d never have put himself in the situation he did last Thursday night in Milledgeville, Georgia.

A 20-year-old college sophomore has claimed she was “sexually assaulted or sexually manipulated” by a man she describes as 6-5, 241 pounds. She has identified Roethlisberger as her attacker. The alleged incident took place between 11 p.m. Thursday and 2:30 a.m. Friday at the Capital City nightclub near the campus of George College & State University.

This comes only eight months after Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. That civil case remains open.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a chance Roethlisberger is innocent in both cases. There’s a chance the 28-year-old has incredibly bad luck — he’s just been in the wrong place at the wrong time twice in the last 21 months.

Do most of us buy that? Not really, but the law says we’re supposed to wait for the evidence and the testimonies and the deliberations before drawing conclusions.

And even if this doesn’t turn into a “fool me twice” scenario, Roethlisberger can be criticized for getting himself into the predicament he’s in. Until the dust has settled, stay out of bars and clubs. And if you absolutely can’t refrain, don’t allow yourself to fall into scenarios that have a chance to result in “mix-ups” like these.

Is this guy just that dumb or does he just not care?

Here’s what’s particularly frustrating about this situation:

1) If he gets off, Roethlisberger clearly won’t have learned a lesson. Again, if he doesn’t care about the court of public opinion — or if he’s simply too dense to grasp it — nothing short of a prison sentence will make Roethlisberger changes his ways.

2) He continues to receive favourable treatment from the media compared to black athletes in similar situations.

Elaboration is obviously necessary on the second point, so here goes it.

If a black NFL quarterback like Jason Campbell, David Garrard, Donovan McNabb or JaMarcus Russell encountered the same issues over a four-year span (don’t forget the near-deadly motorcycle accident in which Roethlisberger wasn’t wearing a helmet), would they be treated the same way Roethlisberger has been?

ESPN infamously and arrogantly ignored the first civil suit launched against Roethlisberger, saying it doesn’t report on civil cases that don’t include criminal charges even though the “worldwide leader” had in the past reported on civil suits launched against Mike Tyson (black) and Marvin Harrison (black). (In this case, ESPN has no choice, given that the accuser went to the police with a criminal complaint.)

Generally, the media continue to chalk this whole thing up as “boys will be boys,” and that approach will continue to prevail until a criminal case gets rolling, if that ever happens.

It’s just another way in which we subconsciously vary our reaction to events based on the skin colour of those involved. This guy’s not a loudmouth receiver, he’s a good ole’ white boy from northwestern Ohio.

The NFL has to be sure not to fall into that trap. For this, his third embarrassing public incident, Roethlisberger should be suspended indefinitely the moment a criminal indictment arrives. That was how things worked for Michael Vick, who inflicted no harm on human beings, and so it should be the same with Roethlisberger, who may or may not have severely damaged the life of an innocent girl (or two).