Commentary

Ben Roethlisberger's redemption

Updated: January 23, 2011, 6:27 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

There are two words in the English language that the sports world just can't seem to get right.

The first is "ironic," which often gets confused with "coincidental."

The second is "redemption," which often gets confused with "The guy who got in trouble in the offseason is playing really well now."

I don't know, maybe it's laziness, maybe it's the by-product of our decaying education system or maybe we misuse the word "redemption" because it makes us feel better about cheering for a troubled athlete. Far be it from me to play God, but it would seem the currency needed for moral restoration is not earned on an NFL field.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesFans responded to Ben Roethlisberger like they always respond to stars with off-field problems: Winning forgives a myriad of sins.

Mel Gibson cannot atone for his anti-Semitic remarks by turning in an Oscar-worthy performance in "Lethal Weapon 8." Kanye West isn't less of a jerk because his latest CD is brilliant. And despite our tendency to misuse the word -- and perhaps the subconscious desire to purge ourselves of guilt -- Ben Roethlisberger's "redemption" is in no way tied to the outcome of Sunday's game.

Touchdowns don't make him a better person, and interceptions aren't an indication of guilt. Our response to him as a player offers no insight into how he views himself as a person, which is where true redemption is rooted. Another championship can help rehabilitate Roethlisberger's image, perhaps even make him marketable again, but it won't renew his soul. That kind of reparation is done behind closed doors, and any storyline that suggests otherwise is best suited for the fiction section.

Like all of us, Roethlisberger is a work in progress. But unlike any of us, he's trying to quarterback his team to a spot in the Super Bowl for the third time in six years. Two separate realities gingerly cohabitate in the body of a 28-year-old living in a cracked fishbowl.

I'm not suggesting Roethlisberger isn't responsible for the bulk of his trouble; of course he is. But the reason many athletes do not think the rules apply to them is because we make them out to be gods. And then when they fall woefully short of our expectations, we treat them like devils. Both characterizations are based on what we think we know about them personally when the reality is the only truth we know about them is how they perform on the field. Most everything else is some sort of weird concoction that's ⅓ branding, ⅓ media spin and ⅓ our projections, both positive and negative.

We may hear the word redemption used a lot this weekend, but it's doubtful we will see an example of it on the field. A kicker missing a crucial field goal can redeem himself in a later attempt. But the kind of personal upheaval Roethlisberger's trying to come back from? That is a process only a select few people are privy to see and, ultimately, only he will know even happened.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine