By Erin Moyer || Senior Editor
I am not “into” sports. Let’s start there. I do not “follow” the NFL. I am not “aware” of which teams are doing “well.” I do know who won last year’s Super Bowl, but that knowledge is really mostly rooted in a longstanding thing I have for Tom Brady and Giselle (And while I’m at it, I’m really happy #FreeTom was such a success). But all of that said: I am from Pennsylvania. There are just certain things that I cannot not know. And unfortunately, one of those things is Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Can we talk about Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers nation? Because I have sincerely been dying to. I have been quietly stewing about Roethlisberger’s place in the NFL for years, and with an amount of ire and tenacity that seems to surprise people. I fly into swift and consuming rages on those rare occasions his name comes up. Writing this article might be cathartic for me, honestly. The thing that upsets me most about Ben Roethlisberger, I think, is that other people aren’t upset about Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger’s place on the Steelers and in the NFL, shows both organizations’ failures to take sexual misconduct seriously. And it should bother you.
For those of you who have not been burning with this rage since you were in high school, let me break this all down: Ben Roethlisberger has twice been accused of sexual assault. The first accusation came in 2008 and the second in 2010. Roethlisberger’s defense team reportedly employed character assassination to discredit his first accuser, who eventually dropped the charges out of fear she’d lose her job. His second accuser, a college student in her early twenties, was so intoxicated that, as reported by one club patron, she was “dragged into a back room” of a nightclub.
The accuser was later taken by her friends to the police, and eventually to a hospital, where doctors found “bruising and bleeding in her genital area.” (My source: http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/steelers/2010/04/13/Grow-up-DA-tells-Roethlisberger-while-announcing-decision-not-to-prosecute-rape-case/stories/201004130163)
Neither of Roethlisberger’s accusers went on to file criminal charges. In spite of the publicly-circulating victim testimony, Roethlisberger has never been charged with any crime. And for some, it would appear that this is proof enough of his innocence. The district attorney’s advice to Roethlisberger, after his 2010 accuser decided not to prosecute the case? “There was too much drinking going on. If he were my son, [I would say], ‘Ben, grow up.’”
Anyway, I was reminded of all of this recently when Michael Vick, the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback who was convicted of dogfighting, joined the Steelers’ squad in August. Some fans were very upset to see the convicted Vick join their team. How could someone who hurt innocent animals play for our team? How could the organization do this? Is Michael Vick even sorry? I saw fans hurl around words like “thug,” or go as far to suggest that “[Vick] should be the one buried under that house” instead of the dogs, rumor has it, that died as a result of his dogfighting ring. As Salon contributor Marissa Landrigan wrote in August, this “racially-coded language” reminds us all how easily black men are plastered with role of criminal, and how difficult that label can be to shake off.
I grew up in an Eagles household, and I remember how my family felt shortly after Vick was released from prison and joined Philly’s favorite team. I know that Vick’s conviction can present a complicated dilemma for people. Some are clearly still too uncomfortable with Vick’s crimes to see him on their hallowed sidelines.
But here’s my point, Steelers fans: You guys have an alleged rapist on your team, and no one seems super upset by that. I’m happy people are getting themselves worked up and ready for a talk about morality and justice and all, but is no one else picking up on this self-righteous fury of hypocrisy? When you already have a purported criminal playing first string, and you are not actively upset to see him in that jersey, can adding a dog-fighter to the list really make you angry?
Michael Vick was convicted of dog-fighting, I know. I don’t want to invalidate that crime. But I find it absolutely infuriating that Ben Roethlisberger is allowed to have a place in the National Football League. And what’s even more infuriating is that he plays for a team whose fan base is more prepared to be morally outraged when Vick, not Roethlisberger, takes the field. Both men maybe did very bad things. You should be upset to have both of them wearing that jersey.
How short a memory we all seem to have. Now that Roethlisberger has a wife and a kid and has managed to stay “out of trouble,” we’re fine with him? We’re back to normal? He gets to be called “mellowed-out?” As though that whole “attacking women” thing is just an ugly phase an unruly, angsty bachelor might go through?
Here’s what’s worse, though: I don’t really know of any football fans who were ever not fine with Ben Roethlisberger. Granted, this all happened five years ago, but I don’t remember any grand disavowals of the Steelers posted on Facebook. I don’t recall Roethlisberger being scorned and dragged through the mud after the accusations surfaced. I don’t think anyone felt the Steelers acted injudiciously in keeping him on. On the contrary, I think most fans were pretty willing to stand by him through his, uh, “legal trouble.” I think most fans—and certainly, the Steelers franchise itself—were pretty willing to side with Roethlisberger, and not his two accusers.
And let me be clear: again, I am aware that Roethlisberger was never charged with anything. In a pure, legal sense, he’s clean. That is quite true. But you would think that the accusations against him alone might be enough to shake the fan base a little bit. You would think having a player accused of such violent acts might be enough to make a franchise think about distancing itself from said player. You would think people might take even a whiff of these crimes seriously.
So my sweeping question to all Steelers fans is this: How are you just fine with this? Honestly, this is alright with you? Your team is represented by a man with two different assault allegations from two different women levelled against him, and you are not angry and upset? That doesn’t concern you? You don’t think of that every Sunday as you don your Steelers jersey and cheer on ol’ Big Ben? No? This should bother you.
As I’ve said, the fact that this man has kept his post at all is disturbing to me. But the fact that he has people behind him, wearing his name on their backs and egging him on, is worse. This is rape culture, you guys: The guy who ran a dog-fighting ring, who has been convicted of hurting defenseless animals, is panned as an embarrassment to have on the team.
Okay, fine. But God forbid anyone think of taking Roethlisberger’s accusers seriously. God forbid anyone worry about being associated with that guy. Hey, he plays well sometimes. He makes the franchise money. He was never actually charged with a crime. What’s there to worry about?
Speaking of charges, furthermore, I haven’t even gotten into the hypocrisy of Roethlisberger’s case versus that of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, two Steelers players who were found with 20 grams of marijuana last year and suspended for a game or two each. Though I’m gratified that Bell and Blount’s punishments weren’t steeper, this comparison really has troubling implications: Okay, so the NFL is seemingly more offended by possessing less than an ounce of pot than they are by suspected rape? Good to know.
And of course, all of the above is really only one glimpse into the NFL’s abysmal pattern of handling player misconduct. Roethlisberger only has accusations against him, it’s true. This is somewhat more of a gray area than, say, Ray Rice being filmed actually physically beating up his fiancee. Remind me what happened there? Even after being charged with aggravated assault in March of 2014, Rice was initially only suspended for two games in July. His contract with the Baltimore Ravens was only terminated in September, five months after he was indicted for assaulting his fiancee, now wife. If the NFL is holding anyone accountable for hurtful behavior, it’s certainly not their players.
Ultimately, the League and the Steelers have got their minds on their money, and their money on their minds. Accusations of assault, brutal testimony and evidence, elevator videos of abuse? There’s not much room in their business model to deal with those.
How do women fit into the NFL’s business model, anyway? Well, it would appear marginally: They have us on the sidelines as cheerleaders, as trainers, as reporters, and now, whoa, as one or two lady refs! Equity! And hey, they will sometimes even dress their players in pink sneakers to raise awareness of breast cancer, aww! As though any woman ran the risk of forgetting about it? It’s also doubly sweet because men don’t normally wear pink, you know?! Ugh, such nice guys!
Can these tokenistic showings pass as warm-hearted, generous progressivism when this organization lets someone like Roethlisberger play? Are these lackluster gestures enough to convince us that the NFL respects women when they let a Ray Rice back into the league? Should this be enough to make me feel supported and safe? I am not so convinced. And it bothers me that other, more sanguine football fans seem to differ.
Here’s what this all comes down to: The Steelers and the NFL need to figure out how to handle player crime and sexual misconduct. These organizations need to understand their influence, and hold their players to actual standards.
Let’s preference integrity and respect, ethics and decency, over a quiet out-of-court, back-in-uniform settlement. If that all seems like too much to ask, well, hey; I said I wasn’t into sports.
So wave that Terrible Towel proudly, Steelers fans. It matches the NFL’s other terrible things.
Senior Erin Moyer is a Senior Editor. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.