Commentary

Ben Roethlisberger and societal change

Athletes can no longer assume there will be no consequences to actions

Updated: April 21, 2010, 4:30 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Phil Mickelson's Masters championship charge at Augusta was hailed not merely as a third green jacket for a very accomplished golfer, but as something more. It was sculpted into a victory for family values, and, as his wife, Amy, fights breast cancer, a victory for women everywhere.

[+] EnlargeFred Bright
AP Photo/John Amis"Here the overall circumstances do not lead to a viable prosecution. If they did, I would be pursuing it vigorously," DA Fred Bright said. "We do not prosecute morals. We prosecute crimes."

In the 10 days since, the place women have occupied in men's sports has been decidedly less celebratory. After the Mickelsons kissed and melted hearts nationwide, Ocmulgee Circuit District Attorney Fred Bright announced he would not be charging Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with sexual assault, but did so grudgingly. At a news conference, Bright hardly vindicated Roethlisberger, acknowledging that Roethlisberger was not innocent of wrongdoing and that his accuser, admittedly heavily intoxicated herself, suffered a terrible ordeal on the night in question. The district attorney said, however, that he lacked the physical evidence to move forward.

At the same time, a scathing article in Vanity Fair profiling four of Tiger Woods' conquests revealed his contempt for women to be far more uncomfortable and disconcerting than his lurid text messaging.

During the same week, former Venezuelan boxing champion Edwin Valero allegedly confessed to killing his 24-year-old wife before hanging himself in his jail cell the next day.

It had nothing to do with the happenings on the golf course, yet within the plumes of scandal smoke, women did nevertheless score a major triumph. The real victory occurred not with the Mickelsons but in both the official and public reactions to violence -- physical and emotional -- against women that historically had been trivialized, outright ignored, and worse, met with a certain contempt that has enabled athletes to believe no consequences exist for reckless misogynistic behavior.

For the first time, in a meaningful way, the wink-wink, nudge-nudge acceptance of the professional athlete and his murky late-night encounters with women has been replaced by a demand for maturity and accountability. In a shift, it appears that if the boys club is not completely closed, its existence is far less reputable than it once was.

Roethlisberger's employers, the Steelers, reacted to the incident in Georgia with displeasure even though no criminal charges were filed. Roethlisberger was in the clear legally, but with an organization-wide grimness that underscored the anger of owner Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II. The Steelers acknowledged that the star quarterback had embarrassed the organization. The Rooneys said his behavior would not be tolerated; escaping an arrest did not mean Roethlisberger would escape punishment.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handed that down Wednesday. Roethlisberger will be suspended without pay for the first six games and will be required to undergo a comprehensive behavioral evaluation by medical professionals, something that announced publicly should embarrass him to no end.

In the past, players could rely both on their reputations, earned or not, and the reflex of their employers and the public to think the worst of the women involved. It is an advantage players have counted on for years that seems to be diminishing.

Now?

"There is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans," Goodell wrote in his letter to Roethlisberger explaining the discipline.

The response of the team and league signaled another shift from the narrative that the athlete, who is unable to fend off the wanton advances from women taken by his fame and wealth, was actually the victim in these cases. It is clear that Roethlisberger, who faces a civil lawsuit over a similar, cloudy incident with a woman in Nevada, no longer receives the benefit of the doubt and won't in the future.

The public reaction to Roethlisberger and Woods is less important than the official response, but only slightly. It is true that without the support and professionalism of law enforcement to uphold the law, the entire system collapses. It is also true that no one knows every exact detail of what occurs between a man and a woman in a limousine, a nightclub or an apartment when alcohol and/or drugs are involved, compounded by the lure of fame and a lifestyle average people rarely, if ever, are allowed to taste.

And it is also true that men will continue to engage in criminal and borderline criminal activities, women will be discouraged from coming forward knowing they will not only be humiliated publicly but the system may also fail them in the process, and this dynamic is the most important of all.

[+] EnlargeRoethlisberger
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesFans will never view Ben Roethlisberger the same way.

But the power of the professional athlete lies with his public credit, his conviction that no matter what he does, the public will always believe him. During Michael Irvin's 1996 drug trial, nightclub dancer Rachelle Smith testified that Irvin attempted to intimidate her with his star power and the loyalty of the public, telling her that anything she said would be her word against his, that he won the Super Bowl three times and she was nothing but a stripper. Who, Smith testified Irvin told her, did she think the public would believe?

When Kobe Bryant was entangled in a 2003 rape case, he relied on the idea of familiarity with a press corps that, in truth, he had treated with distance and contempt. In his moment of need, he attempted to trade on his name to discredit his accuser with his famous "Come on guys, you know me" appeal to basketball reporters.

Bryant benefited from the power of the brand of being a ballplayer, and Woods, who has long been disdainful and contemptuous of the press, recently referred to them as "friends" during his news conference.

Perhaps it is a sign of shifting times or Bryant's star power, but some elements of the public responded to Bryant by threatening his accuser. And it is important to remember that the Bryant rape case was dismissed not because Bryant was innocent, but because his accuser had grown weary of the public humiliation of coming forward, having her sexual history revealed, and chose to end the ordeal.

Seven years later, Roethlisberger is not afforded much of the same protection. The segment of the public that sides with him exemplifies a certain sexism and hero worship, a reaction that undoubtedly would be different if the woman were a friend or family member. What matters is that anyone who took the time to read the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's 500-plus-page report, which is now available online, does not support him, and his employers have not defended him. He has no credibility.

And neither, in this instance, does Woods. When he walked along the golf course at Augusta, his star power still radiated, but it held a sober sheen. He will never be viewed the same again, not by the people who read the details of his encounters, of his telling one woman he wanted to urinate on her, slap and punch her during sex and yet was infuriated by her outrageous request to merely walk down a hotel hallway with him. Woods lost the public (at least this member) not because he and a consenting adult engaged in sexual activities, but because he lacked regard for his intimate partners as people.

And in another shift, one elite athlete told me last week of Roethlisberger: "I don't trust him. I lost a lot of respect for him, because you know what I'm thinking? I'm thinking that could have been my sister. Or what if that happened to my daughter? That did it for me. I want nothing to do with that guy."

The public's shift in attitude may make players uncomfortable, and certainly defensive. Players, with so much to lose in terms of wealth and reputation, view much of the world around them with suspicion.

In the long term, however, increasing the level of responsibility that comes with personal behavior -- athletes, after all, often have the most to lose -- will only benefit players. Proving to the public that they hold their players accountable will also benefit sports leagues that rely on the belief that sports is a reputable enterprise, a belief that has to exist in the minds of mothers first. So Goodell and the Rooney family should be praised for acting decisively.

But given the inequity in the nation's rape laws -- a woman's sexual history is still sometimes admissible in court when a man's is not, for example -- the system's work is not done, either. But times seem to be changing for the better. Boys, in other words, can no longer be boys, give a wink and expect the free pass.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May. He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

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