Come with me as we turn the dial on the football time machine. One at a time while boarding the vessel, and please don’t step on Joe Namath as you enter. He’ll deny it when he wakes up, but he still likes to re-live his failed pickup attempt of Suzy Kolber, and dream of what could have been.
Careful when you turn that dial too, because we don’t want to mistakenly land in the before time when the Raiders were relevant, and we had to see Al Davis’ face on a regular basis. We’re actually not traveling too far today, just a few months.
When I lower the lever and the time travel sequence begins, I’d like you to close your eyes, and flip back in your mind to the last image you have of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The image that bubbles to the surface is probably from the game-winning drive Big Ben led to oust the rivalled Ravens this past Saturday, or maybe from the post-game celebration that followed. Now, open your eyes.
The date is May 10th, 2010, and we’re in the Steel City itself. The Sports Illustrated cover story on the town’s hero (or former hero?) that’s pictured above hit newstands today. It’s just two months after Roethlisberger’s infamous night out in Milledgeville, Georgia, the night when he allegedly harassed a 20-year-old female student at a bar. It’s the second straight offseason in which allegations of sexual harassment emerged regarding the two-time Super Bowl champion.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handed Roethlisberger a six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, one that would eventually be reduced to four games. As SI found out, Pittsburgh’s opinion of their quarterback is steadily declining. He dodged highly circulated rumours of a trade on draft day, and sweaty men with black-and-gold Roethlisberger tattoos even admitted that it’s “to the point now where he’s embarrassed the franchise.”
The outrage, wrote Jack McCallum, was palpable.
When the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette polled its online readers in mid-April about what the Steelers should do with their quarterback, 39% of the more than 38,000 respondents said he should be suspended without pay, and the paper’s website was deluged with heartfelt e-mails urging the team to dump him.
The angst has ignited a revolt of sorts. Mark Baranowski–who owns the Cubana Bar, one of Roethlisberger’s favourite watering holes–refused to let him in without paying covering. The maneuver was about much more than $5; it was a protest against a well established sense of entitlement.
The problem, it seemed, was that an undiagnosed split personality disorder had developed. There was the scrambling, championship winning Ben Roethlisberger on the field, and the money throwing, lady grabbing, immature loser who wore shirts that proclaimed his drinking goals for the day off the field.
Now, let’s walk the streets of Pittsburgh and visit the town’s stores and locally owned businesses. Authentic Roethlisberger jerseys for both men and women have been thrown like forgotten stuffed animals and cheap DVD’s into a bargain bin. A neon green sign strapped to the bin reads “Big Ben: $10.” Meanwhile, a much different shirt comparing Roethlisberger to another disgraced athlete is flying off the shelves…
Then and now, the similarities between Roethlisberger and Tiger Woods and the way in which they’ve conducted themselves are striking. Both were faced with a trampled and tarnished image, and both have seemingly executed a personal turnaround that–at least for now–has the court of public opinion sitting empty, and relatively silent.
Now let’s travel back to the present time. Whenever an athlete is faced with controversy, the generally accepted attitude is that winning heals all wounds. This proves once again that athletes are not mere mortals. Their occupation, and their sole connection to the fame and fortune that granted the opportunity to create adversity with poor behaviour also grants the opportunity for redemption.
Much like Michael Vick, we see and hear Roethlisberger speak, and we use words like “transformation” to classify a vague, intangible quality that can’t be measured with the naked eye. Roethlisberger’s transition seems genuine, and he’s given little reason for doubt. He’s rumoured to be engaged, and he isn’t keeping the taps flowing at local hot spots anymore.
He has, by all accounts, become another example of why sports offers one of the few jobs in which success in your professional life results in nearly immediate personal forgiveness. And he’s done it basically in the four months since the NFL’s regular season began.
Winning is indeed a potent and rapid tonic. With two more wins, any shred of Roethlisberger’s villain status in Pittsburgh will be completely dissolved.