Ben Roethlisberger should be thanking the heavens that he possesses the unique skill to throw a football sixty yards. If he was Ben the 28 year old mill worker accused of raping a 20 year old student in the bathroom of a college town bar, he’d be in prison awaiting trial. Ben Roethlisberger should be thanking the heavens that he is white. If he was Ben the black guy accused of sexual assault in Georgia, he might not even make it to trial.
Ben Roethlisberger should be thanking the heavens that he is rich. If he didn't have the lawyers to block any volunteering of his DNA, as well as lawyers poised to spend hours investigating the last details of a 20-year-old woman's sexual history, he would be wearing the steel bracelets. And he likely wouldn't have had his accuser, after going through the ordeal of a "rape kit," deciding that a high-publicity rape trial was not how she wanted to spend the next two years of her life.
Instead, because he resides on a white pedestal of wealth and fame, Ben Roethlisberger gets Ocmulgee, Georgia, District Attorney Frederick Bright telling Ben to "grow up" and little more. He gets DA Bright saying that he couldn't indict because he didn't think the case could be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt" or that he could make the case "100 percent."
And here I thought that was a judge or jury's job, to determine whether a case could be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt." I thought that evidence is then gathered and presented at a trial. I thought that, as the saying goes, a DA could indict a ham sandwich if he saw fit. Of course, evidence was hard to come by after police didn't seal the bathroom in question. In addition, investigating Milledgeville police officer Jerry Blash had been posing for pictures with Roethlisberger earlier in the evening. After questioning the accuser, it has been reported, Blash made derogatory comments about the accuser. He has since been forced to resign.
It's understandable that people who have been following this case only out of the corner of their eye might think that it is just a classic "he said/she said" situation. No charges were brought, and women try to scam pro jocks all the time, right? People who say that haven't read the 572-page police report. They also haven't read the civil suit that came out nine months earlier in which Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault. The reports are so similar, so patterned, so damning, that you are left with one of two conclusions: either Roethlisberger's 20-year-old accuser is a sociopathic genius who set the millionaire up brilliantly, or Roethlisberger has a patterned modus operendi for how he goes about sexually assaulting women. Either in the middle of the night, in a state of addled inebriation and having sustained a bump on the head, the accuser recalled details of the Lake Tahoe police report (which she had memorized on the off chance she would meet Roethlsiberger in Milledgeville, Georgia), and she got him. Or Ben Roethlisberger did something very wrong on the night in question.
So far, Roethlisberger has chosen to not rebut one word in the 572-page report. Instead, he read a seventy-four-second statement, in which he said, "I'm truly sorry for the disappointment and negative attention I brought to my family, my teammates, coaches, the Rooneys and the NFL." If there was nothing to these charges, there would be no reason to apologize. If there was nothing to these charges, Roethlisberger's bodyguard Ed Joyner, a Pennsylvania state trooper, would not be suffering an internal investigation by his own department. The staties want to know more about the part of the police report where Joyner is said to have denied people access to the bathroom where Roethlisberger was with his accuser.
Now the burden is on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to show whether there will in fact be any punishment for Big Ben. Goodell has the power of judge and jury to indefinitely suspend players and order them into counseling, regardless of whether they were convicted of any crime. Anyone who has read this column knows that I think that this is an unconscionable part of the collective bargaining agreement. It's been used primarily against players caught smoking weed and, most notably, in the case of Michael Vick, who was suspended indefinitely for fighting and abusing dogs. But it is a power that Goodell has and has shown he will exercise. Now he will show the world whether violence against women matters less to the NFL than violence against dogs. In a league where an accepted culture of sexism exists from the cheerleaders to the commercials, to the locker room, Goodell better choose wisely. Women make up the fastest-growing sector of NFL fans. For far too long, they have been treated as if they were invisible or worse. It's not too much to ask that the NFL send a message that misogyny and violence against women is not acceptable under any circumstance and a 28-year-old quarterback getting underage women drunk for bar sex will not be seen as "boys will be boys."
Roethlisberger should have to donate a portion of his salary to rape crisis and battered women's shelters. He should have to speak to young kids about the fact that "No means no." He should, in other words, have to do everything that Michael Vick has had to do to make amends. Yes, Vick was convicted and Roethlisberger wasn't. But if Vick's entourage had lawyered up instead of turning state's evidence against him, it might have been a different story. Roethlisberger went out on the town not with his normal entourage but with off-duty cops: people who know the value of silence. He had a game plan. Goodell had better send a strong message that whatever Roethlisberger was trying to do that night, it's not a game.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].]