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Redemption Stories: Ben Roethlisberger's No-Win Situation

Well, it just doesn't stop, does it? Peter King's bombshell in which he quoted Roger Goodell, incorrectly as it happens, has stirred up the whole Ben Roethlisberger story to even more of a fevered pitch.  As I write this, Ben is at the podium for Media Day, and the sharks are circling, waiting for him to make one misstep that they can plaster all over their various newspapers and websites.  It's a lose-lose proposition for Ben - if he says "I was a jerk and I feel bad about it and I've tried to change," it will probably be interpreted by those who despise him as an admission of guilt, possibly guilt for more than just antisocial behavior.  On the other hand, if he deflects such questions as he's done thus far, he will get articles like this one, written by Steve Politi: Steelers QB Roethlisberger won't find redemption with another Super Bowl ring.  This was one of the nicer ones I found.

Here's a sample of the author's perspective:


He refused to say if he apologized to his teammates for the horrific judgment that led to his four-game suspension at the start of the season, or if the fallout had changed him as a person. He referred to anything remotely probing as a “reflective question” and made it clear he wasn’t in a reflective mood...

...His approach couldn’t be more different from how Michael Vick, the other quarterback for a Pennsylvania team who fell from grace, handled his return to football. Vick never missed an opportunity to show regret for his involvement in a dog-fighting ring that led to his stay in a federal prison.

The two cases are different. Vick was convicted of a crime while Roethlisberger was never charged. Still, it’s striking how reluctant Roethlisberger is to say he made mistakes, and that could be why some football fans seem ready to embrace Vick’s return more than his.

By contrast, Bob Smizik, a sports commentator for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, suggested in this blog entry that Roethlisberger is doing exactly the right thing:

These writers and broadcasters will want to look under every rock in his life. They'll want to psychoanalyze him in public and on a daily basis.

They’re only doing their jobs and the public that scorns them for asking tough questions would love to know the answers.

It’s about those answers that I have some free advice for Roethlisberger: 
Don’t say a word, Ben. Give them nothing...

...It would be nice for the media if Roethlisberger took the Vick approach but not for Roethlisberger. Vick was charged and convicted of a crime and had something for which he could repent. 

As we all know, Roethlisberger was not charged. He was suspended by the NFL for poor behavior and has made his apologies for that. There’s a world of difference between Vick and Roethlisberger.

(emphasis added)

But this is just a preamble to what I want to discuss, which is why do we want a "redemption story" in the first place?  Not everyone does, of course.  There are plenty of people, mainly young men, who think that there was nothing wrong with Ben's behavior - that hanging out in bars and 'hooking up' is all part of life as a bon vivant, and that if you throw a football well enough you can treat people however you like.  However, Ben's employers beg to differ.

Then there are the people that don't want a 'redemption story,' they want an incarceration story, or a lynching story.  Despite the fact that the Georgia prosecutor clearly would have loved to throw the book at Roethlisberger, and would have done so with or without the co-operation of the accuser if he thought he had sufficient evidence, he declined to bring the case to court.  There are obviously many people that feel that this is a miscarriage of justice, but the fact remains that the only thing that Roethlisberger can be convicted of is really boorish behavior. That being the case, why is it that so many people have such a huge problem with Ben?

I believe it is because we put people on a pedestal when they are very good at something that we like.  Because they are a good comedian, or a good singer, or a good actor, or, yes, a good quarterback, we want them to be a person that we can admire as well.  But the flip side of the coin is heaven help them if they turn out to have feet of clay, if they turn out to have human failings.  We can't wait to get out our axes and chop down the false idol. 

The striking thing is how it seems to be personal for people - it is as if the celebrity personally betrayed their fans.  As a result, the only acceptable path to reinstatement in the public regard is 1) public humiliation, 2) mea culpas from the offender to anyone who will listen, 3) some sort of 'penance,' and finally 4) a long, painful road to re-acceptance.  "S/he has to regain our trust" would be the perhaps unspoken thought of the members of the wounded public.

But the question I have is, why?   What makes us think that the artist/athlete/actor in question owes any personal debt to us?  If you can't get past the fact that Britney Spears made some really bad choices and did some really embarrassing things, don't buy her recordings. If you can't forgive Tiger Woods for living a lie, don't watch the tournaments he's in.  He's good, but there are lots of good golfers.  If you can't get past Ben's past, don't buy his jersey, and don't cheer for his team if you want to take it that far. Considering that there are 52 other guys on it who share no culpability with Ben, that seems a bit extreme, but there are plenty of people that feel this is the appropriate response.

Or maybe Ben could go on the Redemption Tour, Now Playing in a Newspaper Near You.  He is not going to be able to make the rounds of season ticket holder's homes to apologize to them for embarrassing Steeler Nation.  For one thing, there's way too many of them.  But many members of the media appear to believe that redemption can be found through the public eating of a continual diet of crow.  And when he does, the Steve Politis will speak of the "phony smile plastered to his face" as he eats it, since clearly being a journalist gives you a press pass into other people's minds and hearts.  But maybe, just maybe, if he abases himself long enough and often enough to anyone who cares to ask, then in a few years he may have walked partway down the Road to Redemption.  Because, as so many writers have hastened to assure us, just winning football games doesn't cut any ice with the aggrieved public. The fact that it means that he is doing his job is apparently irrelevant.

None of this answers the question of why we feel personally wounded when a public figure we look up to "lets us down."  How is it that we so closely identify with famous people that we can feel betrayed, and feel that they in essence owe us personal reparation?

Frankly, I think that this reveals something rather sad about us as human beings.  The problem is that anyone who is in the least self-aware can see into their own heart, and what they see there isn't very pretty.  We know very well, if we reflect sufficiently, that we are perfectly capable of doing some or all of the things that we so vociferously disapprove of in public figures.  As Walt Kelly said, "We have seen the enemy, and he is us."  How many of us that pointed the finger at Donte Stallworth have driven while 'under the influence' and were lucky enough to get away with it?  How many of us that mocked Winona Ryder for her shoplifting conviction have cheated on our income tax returns? 

Does this mean that I think that moral standards are relative, or just irrelevant?  Quite the contrary.  I think that most of us find it difficult to live up to even the rather generous standard we set for ourselves, and therefore prefer to direct our attention to the failings of others. This is why gossip is such a popular pastime, and why the National Enquirer and its ilk will always be with us. If only those who are without sin cast the first stone, the rock pile is going to go pretty much untouched. 

Does this mean I'm suggesting that public figures should not be held to a certain standard of behavior, especially when their position or their contract specifies said standard?  Not at all. Is Ben Roethlisberger answerable to his family, his owners, coaches and team, his friends, and even the people he randomly interacts with? Of course he is. Does he have a responsibility to the position he is entrusted with? Without a doubt. He has in fact been punished for not holding himself to those standards. And as a result of his disregard of that portion of his responsibilities his behavior will be the subject of intense scrutiny for a very long time to come.

But at this point Ben Roethlisberger owes me, and the vast majority of the populace, nothing.  As Bob Smizik noted, he apologized for his actions, and he is apparently in the process of amending the attitudes that led to them. Only time will tell whether the change is genuine and permanent.  But perhaps in the meantime we should refrain from declaring ourselves the arbiters of when a person has repented or apologized or been punished enough.  And to all the reporters out there trying to make Ben bare his soul for the good of the masses, please give it a rest.