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Pop Culture Under a Microscope

And What Roles are We Modeling, Exactly, Frank?

Steelers quarterback Roethlisberger (Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette)

This morning on his regular NPR spot, sports commentator Frank Deford lamented the recent events involving Steeler’s quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  Roethlisberger was accused of raping a young woman during a night of barhopping in Georgia, and though charges were not pressed, the details of the investigation, which have been released to the public, indicate clearly unacceptable behavior not just from Roethlisberger and his entourage, but from the police who handled the report and investigation.  This behavior isn’t what Mr. Deford is worked up about, though–it’s the fact of the apology and suspension, which Deford claims has no “earthly benefit.”  “Why are we expending so much angst worrying about the character of our well-muscled celebrities?” Deford asks.  “What always confounds me is the premise that Commissioner Roger Goodell cited — as do the other so-called czars of sport — that their players ‘have to be held to a higher standard.'”

Are we really talking about holding players to a “higher standard” of morality here?  It’s not as though Roethlisberger was suspended for a speeding ticket or an extramarital affair.  A woman was sexually assaulted by someone who is both worshipped and richly compensated in our culture, and yes, I do think it risks sending a message to “impressionable tykes,” as Deford sarcastically suggests.   The message is that, should you become rich and successful, being surrounded by attractive young women to consume and throw away–willing or no–is both a goal and an inevitability.   Several witnesses apart from the accuser suggest that he exposed himself, made lewd comments, and ultimately barred their access to the bathroom where the alleged assault took place, and he was helped in his exploits by a throng of off-duty law enforcement officers who accompanied him from bar to bar.  When the young women reported the crime to the police, the officer who took her statement immediately visited the bar and sought out Roethlisberger–not to investigate, apparently, but to warn him of the accusation:

“Hey, I need to talk to you guys,” Sgt. Blash reportedly told Officer Barravecchio, the off-duty
Coraopolis officer [who was part of Roethlisberger’s entourage].

“We have a problem. This drunken bitch, drunk off her ass, is accusing Ben of rape,” Officer
Barravecchio said Sgt.  Blash told him. “This pisses me off. Women can do this. It’s[bull] but
we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do a report. This is BS. She’s making [stuff] up.” (Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette)

What we’re talking about here is hardly a higher moral standard; it’s athletes being held above the law.  When everyone around an athlete conspires to provide his every whim, even if it means violating a young woman; when the police themselves refuse to take seriously an accusation, simply BECAUSE it’s lodged against a pro athlete, then YES, I think we should have some “angst”  about athletes’ behavior, and about what it communicates to children, to adults, and to the rest of the world.  About our values, about our legal system, and about the status of women in our society.  Yes, Roethlisberger is performing a certain role, as Deford suggest–and apparently forcing women into theirs–and thousands of admirers are watching.  It’s the specific roles they’re playing that I tend to find troubling.  And it’s a little hard to say to myself, “just let the thugs play.”

Deford, Frank.  “Not all role models need be positive.”  NPR.  28 April 2010.  <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126311757#commentBlock>.  28 April 2010.

Silver, Jonathan D. and Dan Majors.  “Roethlisberger documents give details.”  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  16 April 2010.  <http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10106/1050884-84.stm>.  28 April 2010.

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