What does Ben Roethlisberger have to do to be ranked among the elite quarterbacks in the National Football League by the public at large?
That’s the question Steelers Nation has been asking throughout the season. They see Big Ben, the franchise savior, all set with two Super Bowl rings and perhaps ready to win another on Sunday.
They see the man who, as a rookie, won his first 14 starts and followed that up by leading his team to a Super Bowl victory the next season. They see physical strength, as he is able to hold a ball that a defender is swatting at to retain possession and, incredibly make the throw.
They can read off statistics that may not seem quite as pretty as Drew Brees or Phillip Rivers, but still lists a 17-5 touchdown to interception ratio this season, 19 fourth quarter comebacks including one in the Super Bowl that ranks with the best in football history, an impressive eight yards per pass average (most quarterbacks shoot for seven), the only 500-yard passing game in Steelers history in last season’s 37-36 victory against Green Bay, a 4,000-yard season this year and what would probably have been another if . . . .
And there’s the catch.
Ben Roethlisberger is one of the best quarterbacks of this or any other era. But whether Pittsburgh likes it or not, the rest of the country is going to perpetually view Roethlisberger as, in the words Bernard McGuirk, a “meathead” because of the incidents in Georgia and Nevada the last two off-seasons.
It does not matter if no criminal charges have been brought. Fairly or unfairly, a significant amount of the population is going to view Roethlisberger as a fortunate son who was able to get away with actions others would not have. He will be viewed as “the bad guy” because of this.
Roethlisberger may be accurately described as this era’s Sonny Liston. Liston, the former heavyweight champion who learned to box in the Missouri State Penitentiary, had been a career criminal prior to turning to the ring, and even his rise to becoming a champion was marred by a nine-month stint in prison in the mid-1950s.
He was, as one documentary on his life called him, “The Champion Nobody Liked.”
It did not matter that Liston was born into virtual slavery as an Arkansas sharecropper's son and had no education, it did not matter that after knocking out Floyd Patterson in 1962 to win the heavyweight championship he told fans he would be a “good champion” if they would let “bygones be bygones,” it did not matter that he showed a softer side to writer Carole Katchen in an attached photograph, it did not matter that the arrest leading to his second stint in prison may have been racially motivated, it did not matter how many children he spoke to in hospitals or schools, it did not matter that he showed a sense of humor when, asked by Howard Cosell about his age, he compared himself to Jack Benny.
Liston was always going to be viewed as “The Bad Guy.”
Roethlisberger has these same sort of issues. Nobody knows what happened in that bathroom bar or hotel room, but even if one believes he’s been wrongfully accused, he cannot escape the natural tendency the public has to believe that one accusation could be false, but two accusations generally show a pattern.
If the Steelers win tomorrow, it is going to be appropriate to all those outside their fan base that their helmets are black.
So Roethlisberger may never be accepted universally as an elite quarterback because outside of Pittsburgh (and to a few fans inside the Steelers fan base as well), people don’t want to rank a “meathead” as one of the top quarterbacks in the game.
Three Super Bowl rings? Roethlsiberger could earn five and Madison Avenue, which should not shape public opinion on who are the best athletes, but often does, will still shy away from him. Heck, even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took his shots this week.
Perhaps martyring Roethlisberger, in the long run, will have beneficial effects. Perhaps he will be an example for athletes to stay out of trouble.
Numerous reports say he’s turned over a new leaf; reports he has a fiancé and has become a homebody are a welcome switch.
If Roethlisberger has become a better role model, it’s his chance to be a positive influence to all those who desire a chance to mend their reputations.
But viewed as better than Brees, Brady or Manning? Even if Roethlisberger is, he won’t be.