A Champ on the Field, a Thug Elsewhere

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger

Sports Saturday

Although it is a downer on the eve of Super Bowl Sunday, I can’t help but think of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger through the lens of Joyce Carol Oates’ terrifying short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” This is one reason I will be not be rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers, even though historically they have been one of the classiest organizations in football.

Oates’ short story is about a rape that is about to happen. Fifteen-year-old Connie is seen by one Arnold Friend when she is visiting a shopping center. The following day he visits her house, isolated in the country, at a time when he knows her family is gone. Despite a seemingly “friendly” exterior, his words are filled with underlying menace as he all but commands her to join him and a companion. He never enters her house, never uses force, and we don’t see what occurs after she goes out. Nevertheless, we anticipate the worst. It is one of the most chilling stories that I know.

Much of its shock values lies in the way that she is torn, so abruptly, out of her carefree teenage existence. At one moment she is admiring herself in mirrors, going to shopping centers with friends, kissing boys in alleys, and arguing with her mother. In the next, as Oates describes it, she is entering a terrifyingly large and unfamiliar world. Here is how Oates concludes the story:

She put out her hand against the screen. She watched herself push the door slowly open as if she were safe back somewhere in the other doorway, watching this body and this head of long hair moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waited.

“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said, in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her grown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reache of the land behind him and on all sides of him, so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know what she was going to it.

We can’t know the entire story of what occurred with the 20-year-old Georgia College and University student who was barhopping with Roethlisberger and three sorority sisters last March. (You can read the police records here.) We know that she was drunk and that he followed her into a bathroom, at which point a cohort barred her friends from going in after her. After this, it is her word against his. She claims that he insisted on having unprotected sex with her, despite her protests. Immediately after the episode, she and her friends went to the police.

Why did she drop the charges? Maybe because Roethlisberger’s defense would have argued that she was willing and then tried to blacken her reputation. After all, she was wearing a “DTF” (Down to Fuck) sweatshirt that she had received earlier in the evening. Furthermore, she had been carousing with him.

Popular culture critic Camille Paglia puts all the blame on college women who play with fire, saying that they are asking for bad things to happen. My feeling is that, like Connie in Oates’ story, they don’t know what they are playing with. Granted, a college student doesn’t have Connie’e excuse. Connie is underage and never consents to go with Friend (although a defense attorney might argue that it is only statutory, not forced, rape since Friend never physically forces her). But sexuality fascinates young people—how could it not?—and when it is combined with celebrity and heightened by alcohol, it is such an enticing thing that I don’t blame a college student for wanting to look into it. But as soon as she sees the reality and says no, everything needs to stop. At once.

Furthermore, a 29-year-old man has no business having sex with a drunk college student. I think of the Jimmy Stewart line in Philadelphia Story, which I taught this past week. When Katharine Hepburn asks him why he didn’t “take advantage of her” the night before—“Was I so unattractive, so distant, so forbidding?”— he replies, “You were extremely attractive, and as for distant and forbidding, on the contrary. But you also were a little the worse – or the better – for wine, and there are rules about that.” Mr. Roethlisberger doesn’t play by such rules.

I’ve written a lot about Michael Vick this past football season (for instance, here), how two years in jail and continuing penance may help him save his soul. In contrast, after having served a mere four-game suspension and now back and bigger than ever, the Pittsburgh quarterback may be brandishing his third Super Bowl trophy by late tomorrow. He is in more peril than either Vick or his own victim.

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  1. Susan
    Posted February 5, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Two weeks ago, after watching the Steelers win, I checked online for some stories about Ben and the result of his suspension. While the jury has to be out (as in the Vick story), it sounded as if Roethlisberger has taken the right steps toward rehabilitiation. I’m glad you’ve brought it up, since it seemed to mirror the Vick story, which made for good discussion.


  2. Posted February 5, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    I just read the article the previous commenter posted. It’s interesting, but I am disturbed by the way everyone calls the things Roethlisberger was accused of, “stupid stuff.” Being accused by two women of sexual assault is more than stupid. It is predatory behavior and making bad choices.

    Having a physical ability and being good at playing a game does not mean that you get to transgress societal rules with impunity. Except, it seems that it does. It just makes me feel sad and hopeless sometimes. If a stranger follows a drunk woman in to a bathroom in a bar and forces her to have sex, he’s a rapist. If a famous football player does the same thing, he did something “a little stupid,” and everyone is ready to excuse and forgive. Do his abilities on the football field make him that special?

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted February 5, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I had just been remembering your comments on Vick, Amanda, which were a very important reality check in our discussion–so it was great to see you post on this incident as well. You’re right, “stupid stuff” is a rhetorical move intended to diminish the offense. I find myself more upset by this even more than by Vick, maybe because I can imagine this student as one of my own–I know how essentially innocent many of them are, even when they drink and flirt. I used Joyce Carol Oates as the filter through which to examine the incident but Pope’s Rape of the Lock may have been closer. Belinda may be playing with fire when she flirts with a notorious rake–but she really doesn’t know what she’s getting into whereas the Baron knows perfectly well what he’s after. “Predator” is the right word.

    I pray you’re right about rehabilitation, Sue. From what I’ve read about Vick, he’s changed his entire attitude towards dogs and is excited to be changing the attitudes of young boys as well. If this is true–and I agree with everyone who says “wait and see”–then it’s very exciting. Most exciting for Vick, who learns what it’s like to get his soul back.

    If Roethlisberger genuinely starts thinking of women in a new light–not to mention rethinking himself as a man and as a sexual being, then he will be amazed at how wonderful it is to be in this new space. This would be rehabilitation at its finest. But if it’s only lip service, or only proceeding cautiously so he doesn’t get caught again–he will continue to walk in a dark space. If he’s been scared straight, at least young women will now be safe so I don’t altogether dismiss this step forward. But he has a chance to rethink the way he does relationships. If he were to do so, that would be passage into a truly fulfilling life.


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