x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Roethlisberger still has a lot to do to be forgiven

Forgiveness and redemption are fine, but it is too soon to move NFL bad-boy Ben Roethlisberger back into the hero worship category just because his team is in the Super Bowl.

Ben Roethlisberger celebrates Pittsburgh's win over the New York Jets on Sunday.
Ben Roethlisberger celebrates Pittsburgh's win over the New York Jets on Sunday.

Had Michael Vick not risen out of the mire, the NFL Comeback (From Low-Life Activities) Player of the Year, hands down, would be Ben Roethlisberger.

The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback came very close to being indicted on sexual assault charges involving a college student in the Georgia town of Milledgeville last spring.

The behaviour that prompted the criminal investigation followed similar accusations spelt out in a civil suit, filed in 2009 and still pending, by a Las Vegas casino employee. More instances of boorish, if less egregious, conduct surfaced, suggesting a pattern.

Roger Goodell, the commissioner, suspended Roethlisberger for six games, later reduced to four. The cost was much greater than his US$2 million (Dh7.4m) in lost salary.

Much of Pittsburgh, which loves the team, was so repulsed at Roethlisberger's antics that Art Rooney II, the Steelers president, supported the penalty and reportedly talked trade with other teams.

The guy known as Big Ben became the embodiment of self-indulgent athletes who believe the rules of society do not apply to them.

To gauge his plummeting popularity, check out the sales of his jersey by the league. Previously among the 10 most popular, it has dropped out of the top 20.

Even now, his own city is not fully prepared to wipe the board clean. Sentiment falls largely along gender lines, with female Steeler followers - of which there are plenty - unwilling to release him from their personal probation status.

The conditions of his punishment even provoked a debate on equal treatment of wayward athletes; Vick, an African-American, was sacked for more than a season by Goodell for his involvement with dogfighting. (Apples to oranges: unlike Roethlisberger, Vick was convicted and pleaded guilty. Hence, the longer ban.)

After the Steelers landed another Super Bowl gig last Sunday with a typical Roethlisberger production - decent statistics, compelling leadership, remarkable plays in the clutch - television cameras caught up him bent on one knee, face hiding in an AFC Championship T-shirt distributed to players.

Alone in his thoughts, with millions wondering what those thoughts were.

Only Roethlisberger knows. We can only hope they were this:

I am blessed to have been granted an opportunity to not only play football again, but to straighten out my screwed-up existence without sitting behind bars. I will never revert to that lifestyle again. The world does not owe me; I owe it.

And not this:

Pulled a fast one on all you suckers, didn't I? Cannot wait to resort to my old ways as soon as the Super Bowl is behind us. Flash those warning signals: big, bad Ben is back.

For the next week and a half, you will hear and read the words "Roethlisberger" and "redemption" in the same sentence, as if playing a sport better than almost anyone on the planet can deliver him from the sins of his past.

Be careful. As a player, Roethlisberger has landed on his feet. As a person, we do not know.

By all accounts, the man has comported himself like a saint since the legal inquiry was closed. One condition of the trimmed suspension was that he undergo counselling, which apparently has paid off.Those who deal with him say the arrogance and aloofness have been brought down several notches.

His mantra with the media: I am trying to become a better person. Based on their comments, some teammates might nominate him for Most Improved Player (off the field).

Forgiveness is fine, but it is premature to move Roethlisberger back into the hero-worship category. (In truth, few athletes belong, but we cannot resist packing the room with those who do not measure up.)

We can appreciate him as a quarterback, in the upper tier with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Drew Brees, even if his passing is not the prettiest.

In a seven-year career, he has a Super Bowl ring for each hand and is being fitted for a third. He stands in the pocket as fearlessly as anyone. He takes hits as if he properly regards football as a contact sport for all positions.

How about the almost incapacitating shot to the thigh he absorbed on Sunday from Calvin Pace, the New York Jets linebacker in the Steelers' first series? Shook it off and did not miss a down.

You may applaud him for missing a month of the season and stepping in as the starter as if he were away for one weekend.

You may applaud him for walking the straight and narrow since the suspension. But another off-season is approaching.

Before you let Big Ben off the hook, let's see if the one-time randy Roethlisberger is worth your admiration as a reformed derelict.

In that arena, feel free to hold your applause.

 

sports@thenational.ae