Sometime tonight – and you can wait until kickoff – you must decide if you want to root for Ben Roethlisberger.
He is the most polarizing figure in this Super Bowl. A guy who, but for a few blemishes, might be hailed as a big, likable, Will Ferrell-looking quarterback seeking a third Super Bowl ring and a ticket into the pantheon of NFL legends.
Ah. But those blemishes. Not small. Twice accused of sexual assault. Lurid stories about a casino host cornered in his hotel room and a college student coerced in a bar bathroom. Alcohol. Partying. A coach who admitted he was “highly concerned” for his franchise quarterback.
Even though no criminal charges were ultimately filed, Roethlisberger began this season suspended for his behavior. He missed the first four games of the season, a kid locked away in study hall. Then, not many were cheering his return.
But sports is sports, and the ultimate evaluation is what you do on the field. So Michael Vick, once the most hated man in football, came out of prison, played his rear end off and was cheered deliriously by Philadelphians, the toughest of fans. Santonio Holmes was traded by the Steelers last year after bad behavior and had to sit out four games, same as Roethlisberger, for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Yet he played brilliantly for the New York Jets this season, and almost made it to today’s Super Bowl XLV.
Now here’s Roethlisberger, who is back and winning and throwing touchdowns and, of course, in the harsh light of the Super Bowl media, saying all the right things.
The question is: Do you believe him?
Calling out the right signals
Here is a sampling of how Roethlisberger handled the media this past week:
“When you’re faced with challenges, you find ways to overcome them…”
“I’m counting my blessings, being thankful for every day…”
“I just try to … be the best person I can be, the best son, and Christian…”
“People ask you, ÂWhat do you want on your obituary, your tombstone?… That he’s a good person, a God-fearing person that was loyal to his family and put family first, family and God first…'”
None of these sweet summations jibes with those famous photos of Big Ben partying hard and hugging several beautiful women. None of them jibes with the accusations of him encouraging alcohol shots to that college student and then getting busy with her in a bathroom (an act Roethlisberger admitted, although he claimed it was consensual and never consummated).
Anyone can say the word “God.” But that’s the dilemma in today’s sports world, isn’t it? Do you believe the worst or do you believe the latest? When an athlete invokes faith, he immediately will be embraced by a certain forgiving segment of the public, even if he draws eye-rolls from another.
But when he takes his first snap tonight, with maybe 160 million people watching, are you cheering or booing?
All about our rooting interests
As a sports writer, I have an easy out. I don’t cheer. I am there to watch it unfold. But I also have learned it’s silly to expect choirboy behavior from men who get paid to behave like beasts.
Roethlisberger, 28, is not the first quarterback to be a boor in a bar, and he won’t be the last. He’s not the first to seek counsel on crafting answers to Super Bowl media, then talk about faith and family.
He says he has learned a lesson? We’ll see. You have a sneaking suspicion he’s just waiting until no one’s looking to get his party hat on? We’ll see. He ultimately was not charged with anything (although you always wonder, both ways, in sexual assault accusations). And he hasn’t been in trouble since he returned. Either you believe in the better angels of man’s nature, or you don’t.
But it is becoming too common an issue in sports, a disturbing decision you must make more and more. Do you root for or against a Kobe Bryant (rape charge), a Ray Lewis (once indicted for murder), a Vick, a Roethlisberger, or so many others with incidents and charges that make you wonder if they were victims of their fame, or beneficiaries?
Want him to win? Want him to lose?
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).