Is Ben Roethlisberger a Prima Donna?

This could potentially be the shortest article in the history of Behind the Steel Curtain, because the pedantic answer is no. "Prima donna" is an Italian term with a feminine ending, and therefore refers to a woman. Ben could be a "primo uomo," but not strictly speaking a prima donna. In the same way he cannot be accused of being a diva, although he could be called a "divo."

However, I suspect most of you aren't here for an Italian lesson—you are either here to fuel your Roethlisberger rancor or to look for information showing him in a good light. So let's jump right in.

Both the terms "diva" and "prima donna" come from opera, and refer to the principal female singer. This is the lady (possibly fat) who gets the best arias, sings the high notes as she dies, and spends as much time on stage as possible. Back in the 18th and early 19th centuries the principal singers were expected to not only sing what the composer wrote but to throw in extra stuff of their own choosing. This extra music was "cadenzas" (fancy bits of music made up on the spot while the orchestra waited, sort of like a jazz solo.) But the principal singers often went a step farther, inserting one or more arias from completely different operas, chosen to show off their voices.

Putting in arias by different composers made the guy who wrote the opera pretty mad. But the producer didn't care. If the prima donna and/or the primo uomo were big enough names, they could pretty much do as they liked. They were the rock stars of their day.

The cadenzas made not only the composer but most everyone else mad, because they could go on for quite a while. Often the orchestra would have had time to go out for a beer. Or two. The longest cadenza on record, sung by Gaetano Crivelli at La Scala in 1815, went on for over 25 minutes. And you thought commercials were bad.

Crivelli was a primo uomo, being a tenor, but many of the most sought-after singers of the day were harder to classify. They were the castrati, men who had been—er, never mind. Let's just say they sang the women's roles. Football players may complain about what they suffer for the game, and rightly so, but I'll bet none of them have gone to those lengths.

Singers have not changed much since the 19th century, except for the castrati part, thankfully. When I first went to music school I soon learned to recognize the specialty of the other music students by just watching them walk down the halls. The trumpet players were boisterous, the horn players neurotic, the flute players thin and willowy, whether male or female, and the string players were mousy and frequently lacked personal hygiene skills. The singers were a breed apart. They took up more of the air in the room, and not because they were necessarily large. The days were even then departing when a singer could get away with weighing 300 pounds because they could sing well. Their personalities just dominated whatever space they were in.

This is true wherever you go. Some singers are nice and relatively normal and some are like the old joke. (Q: What's the difference between a soprano and a piranha? A: Lipstick.) But it takes a certain sort of personality to be willing to step onto a stage and sing in front of people when you're not in a karaoke bar. Your voice IS you. If you are a violinist and somebody doesn't like your playing you can blame your instrument. When you're a singer you may perhaps be able to develop better technique or more breath control, but your voice is what you've got, and you can't buy a better one. Supposedly the number one fear most people have is the fear of public speaking. Singing is like public speaking, only naked. And it's cold in the room.

A quarterback is the football equivalent of the starring singer. Basically, it's all on them. They couldn't be anonymous if they tried, and they wouldn't want to try, because it's who they are. Like singers, they may be nice, like Aaron Rodgers seems to be, or they may be cool, like Tom Brady seems to be until something annoys him, but they are first and foremost competitors. In short, they are the primo uomos.

There are other divos on the field, of course, just as there are the singers who have the supporting roles. Those would naturally be the wide receivers and, lately, the new hybrid model tight ends. And let's not forget the top-flight running backs either. There are also the singers who only made it into the chorus, and provide the backdrop for the main stars in anonymity, like the offensive line.

The analogy breaks down here, because often the singers in the chorus wish they were the stars, and they like to talk about the stars behind their backs in what may be a catty fashion. The stars also have backups, and I suspect some plotting goes on—casually loaning the star a handkerchief last used in the pulmonary ward, for example. I don't believe the Steelers culture fosters this, but I can think of teams where this might be a fair comparison. For fear of legal action, however, I won't mention any of them.

But let's return to Ben. He seems to be not only a primo uomo but an old-fashioned one. He takes the careful composition his coaches have crafted and embellishes it or even adds completely different elements. Some may think this is a necessity, but it's a preference. Don't take my word for it, though. You can hear it straight from the horse's mouth, taken from his latest interview with Mike Prisuta. (You can listen to the interview, and Prisuta's comments, here.)

When asked why he is insistent upon his style of "sandlot" quarterbacking, Roethlisberger said the following:

"...obviously just throwing touchdown passes is awesome. Five step drops, hit while I throw, make the completion, touchdown, that's awesome. But there's something a little bit fun about a guy hanging on your leg, and you push him off, and you scramble out, and a receiver breaks his route off, and the defense thinks they have you sacked, and the coach is yelling, and you throw a touchdown. There's just something a little special about that. I don't want to do those all of the time, but it's neat and fun to do. It's fun to see how it demoralizes the defense."

This piranha doesn't even have lipstick on. Note the basic answer; "It's more fun for me, and messes with the heads of those around me." Sort of like insisting on inserting an aria from another opera. It doesn't have anything to do with the plot of the opera you're performing, but it gets the audience excited!

Or how about this comment, when asked if the Steelers will still throw the ball a lot, or even most of the time:

"I hope so. Shoot, if we go no huddle, I'll make sure we do." And while he's at it, he may extend the play. Maybe even for a record 25 seconds or so!

When asked how the Steelers players might respond if Haley turned out to be a, shall we say, difficult person to get on with, Ben said:

"A good coach in my opinion knows how to coach players and each player. It's kind of the same way with me as a quarterback. Each guy gets motivated in a different way...they all need to be kind of led in a different way."

Translation: It's all about me.

Ben demonstrates the classic symptoms of primo uomoism, to coin a phrase. But is this a bad thing? Actually, I think it is not only not a bad thing but actually necessary. If he weren't, he wouldn't be a good quarterback, because it goes with the territory.

It takes a certain type of personality to be able to do the job of a quarterback well. It's possible to have the personality and not the talent, and naturally if this were the case you wouldn't be any good, but I believe if you have the talent but not the personality you won't be a success either, at least not at the "elite" level. He has to have confidence in his ability to make things happen and a fierce desire to win.

Like any reasonably sensible singer, he will listen to his coaches and directors as long as he's convinced they can help him do what he loves best—win, and be a star in the process—more effectively. Sure, he's a diva, but he's our diva, and his ultimate aim is exactly the same as the aim of his coaches and of Steeler Nation—a Super Bowl ring for each of the remaining four fingers.

If believe if Todd Haley is smart he will work to persuade Ben of his ability to help the players to be their best, in the best way for them. Some people may not like Ben's comments, but they are honest. A more subtle man than Ben might couch his remarks more tactfully, but there is a great advantage in knowing where he stands. Ben has won a lot of games for the Steelers, and deserves some consideration to be given to his opinions. Haley has to win his trust, and I hope he starts soon. Here's one last comment from Ben:

Asked if he had been yelled at personally, Ben said "plenty...it's not fun to be yelled at, I don't think anyone likes it, but to me you get just as much, if not more, out of me if you just talk to me whether I screw up or do good. Just talk to me, so we can work through the reason I'm getting yelled at."

Translation: "I'm almost 30 years old, I've been doing this a long time, and I'm pretty good at it, so treat me like an adult." Which seems entirely reasonable, even for a prima donna.

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