Old rules don’t apply in Roethlisberger case

Steelers QB’s sex scandal lifts the veil on an out-of-control bar culture few in the older generation can understand

April 19, 2010|By Susan Reimer

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is in trouble, and that smirk you see on the faces of Baltimore Ravens fans is schadenfreude: a word that means "taking pleasure in the misfortune of others."

Mr. Roethlisberger is waiting to hear if he will be suspended for conduct unbecoming a National Football League star, and Ravens fans are thinking Steeler games without Mr. Roethlisberger are Steelers' losses in a hotly contested AFC North football rivalry between the two teams.

Big Ben was celebrating his 28th birthday in a Georgia college town last month, and he got tangled up, according to officials, in a "dingy" bar bathroom with a "highly intoxicated," 20-year-old college student who filed a sexual assault complaint against him — and then asked the authorities not to pursue it.

Georgia authorities declined to indict Mr. Roethlisberger without more evidence of a crime. The quarterback held a press conference, apologized to fans and teammates (but not to the young woman), promised to do better. But Pittsburgh fans are so disgusted with his behavior that many want him gone for tarnishing the Rooney family name and the franchise they hold so dear.

And what I see here is a kind of modern family drama in which the grown-ups are absolutely clueless about the lives their kids are leading in bars late at night and can't respond with anything but anger when confronted with the ugly side of being a drunk 20-something.

That Mr. Roethlisberger celebrated his birthday bar-hopping with a bunch of buddies and buying shots for the women they encountered is not uncommon these days, whether you are a Super Bowl-winning quarterback or not.

That a crude game of grabbing ensued with the sorority girls in the bar is also not a surprise. After all, the young woman in question was wearing a DTF ("Down to F---") pin, which signaled her willingness to have sex, whether she really meant it or not. But this is a hook-up culture where people looking for sex don't really need pins to identify each other.

That she was reportedly too drunk to be sure what happened next is pretty common, too. If Mr. Roethlisberger was just some frat boy, it might have ended there.

But he is Ben Roethlisberger and the feeding frenzy continued until she declared that she didn't want to pursue the matter anymore. Next up? Her name and photograph will almost certainly appear on the Internet, and other women will come forward with stories of Mr. Roethlisberger's crude behavior.

Faithful readers know I am a Steelers fan, but I am no fan of the courting dance of drunken 20-somethings, and that's what this was, $100 million football contracts notwithstanding.

When does it become rape? The rules have changed so fast and to such a degree that the law and the older generation are without a clue, and it has become tougher to assign blame, much less criminal charges, which in Georgia come with a minimum 25 years in prison.

Remember when "No" meant "No," even if she had said "Yes" 10 times before or 10 minutes before? That doesn't work if both parties are so drunk they might not be able to identify each other the next day, let alone remember whether permission was granted the night before.

Remember when a woman's character or sexual history was not relevant? But what does a "DTF" button say?

These days, sex with a professional athlete pretty much guarantees a woman a payday, in child support or civil damages. Mr. Roethlisberger is in fact facing just such a civil suit filed by a Las Vegas hotel worker a year after she says he raped her. The suit was filed four months after he signed a new, $102 million contract with the Steelers.

But I don't get the sense that this latest girl was gold digging. The young woman had been bar-hopping with Mr. Roethlisberger's crew that night, trading shots and, according to witnesses, sexual banter.

No. I think there was something different going on here. Drunk was going on here and, girlfriend, if you get that drunk you bear some responsibility for what happens next, whether you get your purse stolen or you get roughed up in a dingy bar bathroom. And police reports suggest that the accuser was nearly incapacitated.

Mr. Roethlisberger acted like an animal, according to the standards held by the NFL, the grown-ups, and Pittsburgh fans. They all want him punished for behavior they've never witnessed and don't want to believe happens out there late at night in bars between some of their children.

There is no excuse for that behavior, but there is an explanation.

It was drunk out that night.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Susan.Reimer@baltsun.com. Twitter.com/susanreimer.

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