Ben Roethlisberger's redemption on the field doesn't mean he's a changed person off it

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 11:51 PM

Seven days before the Super Bowl, Ben Roethlisberger is frighteningly morphing into Ben Redemption.

He is being hailed in some quarters for his ability to overcome nefarious perceptions about his character, to overcome his made-up-their-minds detractors, the people who want to bring him down like the New York Jets wished they could a week ago.

But Big Ben has only one person to overcome if he wants to change how people view him: Ben Roethlisberger.

He's the one who bought kids alcohol last summer, walked into a nightclub bathroom in Milledgeville, Ga., with a sauced young woman and left it to police to decide what really happened behind closed doors after she cried rape.

Though charges were never brought against him, those negative perceptions were not invented; he created them. He's the one who was sued in civil court by a woman in Nevada who claimed she was sexually assaulted.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell must have found something in those police reports that made him suspend Roethlisberger for six games, before he reduced the suspension to four, no? That it might have been more than merely a horrendous lack of judgment.

And now that Roethlisberger has the Steelers back in the Super Bowl, his tarnished image almost bizarrely has a chance to be miraculously refurbished.

But that's where Big Ben gets off the hook, because it's our fault for believing that how well star athletes do their jobs somehow equates to the person they are off the field.

See, your past counts only so long in sports - until you use your athletic ability to obfuscate what you did wrong. En route to being great again, by association you are somehow seen as a good person.

Look, Roethlisberger might have made changes in his personal life for the better. But we don't know. Further, how can a person's success on the field come moderately close to telling us?

One of the big mistakes made in January 2001 was calling Ray Lewis's story a tale of redemption, a mere year after he was arrested in a double murder and eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.

He was merely a man who used the field as a sanctuary during the most trying year of his life, a year that incredibly culminated with him being named Super Bowl MVP. He got the job done. That's it.

Changed person? Now, yes. After a decade of charitable endeavors in Baltimore and a sincere effort made to cut ties with his former friends, Lewis has changed. But in 2001, it was too early to tell.

But just as with Big Ben now, it didn't matter then: To some, Lewis became a good guy because he was a great football player.

Bottom line, when players win for our teams we find reasons to like them - even the ones we thought of as irredeemable.

In fewer than two years, Latrell Sprewell went from a violent malcontent who choked his coach to the toast of New York. Why did we get sucked in? He led the Knicks to the NBA Finals. Winning, then, became the great deodorant for his issues that had nothing to do with basketball.

"The problem all along had been the character-analysis game," David Remnick observed in the New Yorker at the time. "Like it or not, goodness is a bonus, not a requirement, for playing ball. It was always thus: Ted Williams could be abusive of his fans, and even the sainted [Joe] DiMaggio was, at times, unsaintly."

But, Remnick concluded, "winning made 'good guys' of the 'bad guys.' In sports it usually does."

Indeed, Allen Iverson, pre-2001, was the troubled knucklehead who couldn't get rid of those lousy friends from Hampton Roads who kept holding him back. But in his MVP season in Philadelphia, the year A.I. led the 76ers to the NBA Finals against the heavily favored Lakers of Shaq and Kobe, he suddenly emerged as a tale of heart, character and redemption.

We didn't know if Iverson had stopped feuding with his coach and making bad decisions off the court. But the assumption was: Iverson is winning now; he must get it.

Our warped logic follows that good people go to the NBA Finals and the Super Bowl; bad seeds are beaten soundly, injured or, worse, never matter again.

What if Michael Vick never electrified a stadium again after his 19-month stay in prison for running a dogfighting operation? What if he had never gone from a federal penitentiary in Leavenworth fewer than two years ago to the Pro Bowl this week in Honolulu?

Instead, imagine if he became a doting father and an assistant shift manager at your local Applebee's - volunteering his time to abused-animal shelters, speaking with children about the dangers to animal cruelty. Would he be viewed as a redemptive figure? Would the owner of that particular Applebee's be taking the president's call to congratulate him for giving Vick a second chance?

Why not? He turned his life around. He realized the pain he caused.

Oh, but he wasn't famous for playing sports anymore. We should have known his redemption would only travel as far as he could throw a spiral on Sunday.

Roethlisberger has now taken the baton from Vick. Like Vick, Big Ben has elicited polarized feelings over how much a professional redemption equals a personal redemption.

"In every aspect of life, there's all kinds of people that fall off," Dan Lebowitz, the executive director of Northeastern's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, told the Boston Globe this past November. "It's how they return, the responsibility, the accepting, the accountability, that they see as their own that allows people to be compassionate and allows for redemption.''

It would be good and right for the people who equate doing well at work with doing well in life to reflect on that for a moment and realize Ben Roethlisberger quarterbacking Pittsburgh to his third Super Bowl has nothing to do with whether he's a changed man.

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