Down And Distance
As the playoffs loom, how to justify watching Ben Roethlisberger play football
This weekend’s slate of NFL games offered a rare opportunity for football fans who watch the game with a conscience: namely, the opportunity to see the Steelers play without the ickiness of having to watch Ben Roethlisberger under center. “Big Ben,” as he’s affectionately known by those who find it easy to lionize a man who’s twice been credibly accused of rape, is a Tough Guy, and when he has suffered an injury, he usually still manages to find a way to get himself back on the field. (The last time Roethlisberger missed a game, in fact, it was during the four-game suspension at the start of the last season, issued in response to his second set of rape allegations.) This week, though, with a rollover game against the worst team in the league in the St. Louis Rams staring them down, and Roethlisberger’s ankle banged up, backup QB Charlie Batch was named the starter.
The Steelers are a storied NFL franchise and a marquee team in the league, but it is difficult to have fun watching them play when the snaps are going to Ben Roethlisberger. Not so much for those who indulge the (frankly creepy) “my quarterback, right or wrong” nationalism and who argue that Roethlisberger must be innocent of his allegations by invoking an absurd no true Scotsman logic trap; nor fans who make the (even creepier) insistence that because the woman asked the DA not to prosecute to spare herself the media attention that would follow being identified as the lady who accused a Pro Bowl quarterback of rape, she must obviously be lying. But for fans who operate without those particular hang-ups, seeing Roethlisberger play the game that has put him into a position where he could face no legal consequences despite being twice accused of rape — it is an uncomfortable experience.
That was like a year ago, though. He’s totally reformed, right?
On a list of the “most disliked NFL players” compiled by Forbes last month, Roethlisberger took the number three spot, behind Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress, both of whom were convicted of the crimes they were accused of and resumed their NFL careers after serving jail time. Apparently spending a few sad weeks at the beginning of last season with a publicist teaching him how to smile was not quite enough to transform Roethlisberger’s image.
During the Steelers’ Super Bowl run last year, a number of editorials were penned about how people had reasons to root against Roethlisberger. And while that’s usually satisfying when it comes to a player like, say, Philip Rivers or Jay Cutler, whose sins are essentially confined to looking like a dick, it’s not really less uncomfortable to cheer against Roethlisberger than it is to cheer for him.
And since Charlie Batch isn’t likely to be on the field much during the Steelers’ playoff run, it leaves the dilemma in place: how do you justify watching a guy play football who very well may have raped two different women and escaped prosecution in large part because of his playing career? Root for him or root against him, there’s something inherently gross about enjoying a game being played by a guy who’s been credibly accused of rape.
Taking a cue for #10ForTebow
Last week, in response to the (now fleeting) outbreak of Tebowmania, which saw the suddenly-objectively-terrible Denver Broncos quarterback ascend to rapturous heights in the hearts and minds of his fans, a Twitter campaign called #10ForTebow was launched: if Tim Tebow wants to use his platform as an NFL quarterback to proselytize, and take a firm side in the Great American Culture War, then those who oppose his political beliefs would donate ten dollars for every touchdown he scored to an organization that provides abortions.
It’s an idea that makes even more sense when it comes to Ben Roethlisberger. One of the hardest things about being a fan of a league that still includes Roethlisberger as a member is recognizing that, by caring about football, you’re empowering a guy like that to shrug off credible accusations of rape. Regardless of what team you root for or how much you may decry a player like Roethlisberger as slimy, the cultural conditions that allow a football player to avoid prosecution are created by paying attention to the game. We bear some responsibility for those conditions.
As such, I’d like to make a modest proposal, in the wake of a Roethlisberger-free week that reminded us how much less complicated watching the Steelers play is when a genuine, by-all-accounts good guy like Charlie Batch is taking snaps: if you’re a Steelers fan, make a $10 donation to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network every time your quarterback scores a touchdown; if you’d rather root against the guy, drop your ten bucks to RAINN for each interception.
As the playoffs loom, and the Steelers look to land in their fourth Super Bowl in the Roethlisberger era, odds are that NFL fans will be watching the team play a lot in the next few weeks. While there’s no way to know if Roethlisberger is guilty or not, the fact that he was never prosecuted, and that the officer at the scene of his second rape accusation opted to pose for pictures with the QB and call the woman in question a “drunk bitch,” means that his talent on the football field was valued over the woman who accused him of raping her. If you want to watch him play, maybe you have a responsibility to prove to other people who’ve been raped that they matter, too, by paying for the privilege.