Commentary

Fame, stupidity and Ben Roethlisberger

It's too late for Big Ben. But when will other athletes learn the limits of privacy?

Originally Published: April 19, 2010
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Ben RoethlisbergerP Photo/Gene J. PuskarAmong other things, Ben Roethlisberger should've known he couldn't keep his bad behavior secret.

Ben Roethlisberger is no gentleman.

Nor does he imbibe his leisure time highballs in moderation. This we know to a certainty merely by doing an online image search. An "image" search! Perfect!

Thus some hurried thoughts this week on private life and public image, on celebrity and loneliness, on stupidity and appetite and shame, cowardice and money, technology and sex, crime and punishment, DTF and WTF and the GBI and the NFL.

Jerry Jones
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesJerry Jones is still in damage-control mode over his caught-on-camera incident.

In a society that requires honest, hardworking Americans to take a drug test and a polygraph so that they might be allowed the privilege of restocking canned goods at Ralph's or Gristede's or Walmart for $8 an hour, is it too much to ask our multimillionaire quarterbacks to keep their junk in their pants when they're out in public?

We now know that answer to be "yes."

One of the most telling details of that sad night down in Milledgeville is that Roethlisberger's hired goons are alleged to have deleted photos from sorority girls' cell phones and PDAs and cameras that showed Roethlisberger drinking before the real fun began. Which a priori censorship speaks pretty clearly to Roethlisberger's not-very-honorable intentions, and to the idea that even the dumbest horny celebrities are now aware of the damage a grainy snapshot or video can do to their endorsements and earning power. (To say nothing of what might be entered into evidence by the prosecution in a court of law.)

Whether you're the QB of the Steelers or Jerry Jones or Michael Phelps, you are now caught, fairly or not, in the gears of the Information Age, in an era of instant embarrassment delivered by the wireless terabyte. Even 15 years ago, an athlete or a movie star or a politician might get away with being only human in public -- or even a little less than only human. Gossip was mostly analog back then, and it took some time to alert our nation's cocktail waitresses and rent boys to which leading man or senator or halfback was apt to get sloppy or handsy or rough. The traditional press missed or ignored as many marquee infidelities as it collared.

In the now, however, as Tiger Woods and Jesse James teach us, we live in an age without shame and in which your fetishes and kinks and strong-arm indiscretions are webcast to a curious world before those "Release the Kraken!" boxer shorts even hit the floor. Ask Hamilton, Leaf, Cutler or Orton what it's like to have every plastered snapshot plastered across the Internet for eternity.

Michael Phelps
David Hecker/AFP/Getty ImagesNot to worry. It's only water this time. But earlier photos of Michael Phelps and a bong weren't so innocent.

Weirder than the tech, though, is the uncanny strangeness of 21st century fame itself. The personal tension in celebrity has always been between its isolation and loneliness, and the leverage and privilege that fame provide to combat them.

Meaning that because stardom and self-pity make you think your burdens are singular, you decide you're entitled to whatever remedy you seek in self-medication. Wherever you might seek it.

Trouble is, in the same way that technology and social media changed forever the dynamic of the casual hookup, it has done away entirely with any expectation of secrecy. To say nothing of simple privacy. And the key to all those mind-bending, self-medicating, celebrity hijinks for all those centuries was secrecy.

The exquisite Wi-Fi irony being that all this electronic peekaboo makes the casual hookup infinitely easier -- and more damagingly public -- than ever before.

How much privacy would you give up for a million dollars? For $10 million? What would it be worth to you to let the world know your embarrassments? Your appetites? To let your enemies -- or worse, your friends -- know your weaknesses and your sick addictions?

The entirety of reality television hangs on that very equation. How willingly would you debase yourself for fame?

[+] EnlargeParis Hilton
David Livingston/Getty ImagesParis Hilton seems never to be very far removed from a cell-phone camera.

Our worship of modern fame, and the hysteria of mass celebrity, go back at least to Rudolf Valentino; maybe even further, back to the cults of personality that sprang up around Bernhardt and Nijinsky at the end of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th. You see it metastasize after that, run wild through the age of the bobby soxers and Sinatra, then Elvis, then the Beatles, and on and on through successive generations of pop-cult icons and new technologies.

And with every improvement in the power and portability of our communications devices, pop celebrity comes faster and faster to more and more people, becoming even more evanescent, evaporating more quickly than ever before, leaving our shooting stars and starlets mostly broke and unfamous and in line for a guest shot on VH-1 -- or an obituary post on Gawker -- a decade hence. (Whatever happened to that cute Justin Bieber?)

Through it all, somehow America never stops being a high school cafeteria. And the quarterback always gets away with more than you do.

If the NFL ever begins random testing for Jaeger bombs or Hooters girls, any number of our young gridiron stars will be in real trouble. But the NFL, of course, will not. Recreational drugs -- used by beatniks and hippies and troublemakers of weak character -- are strictly verboten, but alcohol is a problem only if you drive. Even then it's really a problem only if you get caught. Sex? Sex has never troubled the NFL, just ask the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.

(How drugs seem any more destructive to American morality and productivity than alcohol remains an unanswered question for the ages, and one of our strangest double standards. It is worth remembering however, that the Medellin cartel doesn't buy much network ad time. The More You Know!)

[+] EnlargeWilliam Butler Yeats
AP PhotoClearly, William Butler Yeats anticipated technology, celebrity and the 21st century.

For those of you who object to any penalty at all being handed down by the league or the team for conduct off the field, remember this: Random, baseless paternalism is the very foundation of big-time sports. The operation of every professional sports league in the world depends upon the willingness of condescending billionaire team owners to behave like Daddy Warbucks, and the eagerness of mouth-breathing half-wits like Ben Roethlisberger to retain the extra privileges they enjoyed in high school.

Whatever the penalty levied by the NFL or by the Steelers or by public opinion, if it does not shock a generation of young athletes back to accountability -- however briefly, even only for one night -- a great chance to right a wrong will have been lost.

Because Ben Roethlisberger cannot be saved. Sorry. He is stuck with himself and his reputation as a groper and a heel and a drooling cartoon for the rest of his life. And we are stuck with him. If only someone had had the foresight and the fortitude to punch him hard in the nose 15 years ago for behaving like a jackass, for behaving like An American Athlete With A Future, he might have become a better man. As it is, he is lost forever to stupidity and cupidity and self-regard. Another halftime cautionary tale.

The innocent and the beautiful
Have no enemy but Time.

I am not quoting Yeats here. I'm quoting the cover of Vanity Fair quoting Yeats. It seems apt.

The innocent and the beautiful
Have no enemy but Time.

In a nation of nearly 300 million cell phones, where will that leave Ben Roethlisberger?

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.

MORE COMMENTARY »