Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 16, 2011

Big Ben’s Working His Way To A Second Chance With Fans

The fans at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh were solidly behind their Steelers in Saturday night’s divisional round playoff game against longtime rival Baltimore. But from all reports their feelings about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger were more mixed; which makes Big Ben just the latest example of a modern athlete presenting modern sports fans with a decidedly modern conundrum.

In his first six years in the NFL Roethlisberger led the Steelers to two Super Bowl championships, a record which in most cities would earn a quarterback status as a minor deity. But during that same time the 28-year old has twice been accused of sexual assault. The more recent occurrence was last March, when a 20-year old college student alleged that at the end of a booze-filled night Roethlisberger raped her in the restroom of a bar in Milledgeville, Georgia. While ultimately no criminal charges were filed, the league’s independent investigation resulted in the quarterback being suspended for the first four games of this season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. In the immediate wake of the incident in Georgia, the media was flooded with reports citing repeated examples of Roethlisberger engaging in rude and boorish public behavior.

All this turned Big Ben into a polarizing figure in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have been owned by the Rooney family since they were founded in 1933; and along with giving their fans more Super Bowl championships than any other team, the Rooney’s have always had a pristine local reputation built on community service and a lack of ego. The image that emerged of the team’s star quarterback last spring was about as far removed from that of the Rooney’s as one could imagine.

When Roethlisberger lined up behind center Saturday, he looked across the line of scrimmage at the Ravens’ veteran linebacker Ray Lewis. In 2000, a fight broke out between two groups at a Super Bowl party in Atlanta. When it was over two men in one of the groups had been stabbed to death. Lewis was one of the members of the other group, and ultimately he and two other men were charged with murder and aggravated assault. In the end Lewis pled to a lesser misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice, and testified against the other two men. He was sentenced to a year’s probation by the court, and fined $250,000 by the NFL.

Like current Pittsburgh fans, Baltimore’s faithful had to sort out their feelings about Lewis a decade ago. A year after the stabbing incident, he was named the MVP of the Super Bowl; but he was the first such honoree not to be invited to film the iconic “I’m going to Disney World” commercial.

Modern athletes are likely neither more nor less law-abiding, moral, honorable, decent, faithful, mature, or wise than their generational predecessors. But in a distant and simpler time, when information traveled so much more slowly, through so vastly fewer outlets than is now the case, even the most ardent fans simply never heard much about their particular hero’s activities off the playing field. Multiple stabbing deaths would likely make news in any era. But an allegation against a star of assault at a bar in a small and distant city might well have been covered over before it made it to the wire services in another age. As for accounts of behavior that was merely loutish, rude, stupid, or drunken? Surely the unrecorded history of sports is legion with those.

So today’s fan is confronted regularly with the news that his or her hero or heroine is entirely human and utterly fallible. With depressing regularity, it turns out that just like the rest of us, our icons too have feet of clay. In the simpler time the blissful fan was blessed with being able to ignore that reality; today it confronts us with mind-numbing regularity. “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” has gone from a plaintive plea marking a singular black moment in sports history to an imbedded part of the lexicon; fans needing only to substitute the name of their most recent idol turned miscreant.

But if life is all too often about failure and folly, it can sometimes also be about second chances. Redemption off the field is often followed by redemption on it. Players that acknowledge their shortcomings and pay appropriate penalties can rise once again in the eyes of their fans. What is deemed to be appropriate will of course always be an individual judgment.

In the decade since that horrible night in Atlanta, Ray Lewis has remade his life. He has become a mentor both on and off the field, and is heavily involved in charitable activities. His foundation focuses its work on providing assistance to disadvantaged youth in greater Baltimore. He’s also been active in pressing local leaders for greater support for disability sports.

Michael Vick was appropriately run out of Atlanta following revelations of his involvement in a heinous dog fighting ring. But after two years in prison, a bankruptcy, and mentoring by former Colts’ coach Tony Dungy, he returned to football. This season Vick played to cheers in Philadelphia, and he will certainly receive votes in the balloting for the league’s MVP.

In Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger has begun the work of proving himself worthy of a second chance. He noticeably increased his charity work and community involvement this year. Once churlish with the press, he was recently honored with a news media cooperation award. Not every fan is yet convinced, nor should they be. Redemption takes time, and a second chance should be harder than the first.

But with time winding down on Saturday, on a third-and-19 play Ben Roethlisberger found rookie wide receiver Antonio Brown streaking down the right sideline for a 58-yard completion to set up the Steelers’ winning touchdown. At that moment, as Heinz Field shook with noise, no one could blame the fans in Pittsburgh for being understandably inclined to listen to the better angels of their nature.

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