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Big Ben and the Bad Boys of Sports

by Dear Jon
April 20, 2010


Dear Jon,

I know you're a Packer fan and you already have a good quarterback. But what if you were, like, a Browns fan or Panther fan. Would you want 28 year-old, 2-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on your team?

- Football Fan

Dear Foot,

First of all, what on earth would I be doing cheering for the Cleveland Browns? That's like cheering for toilets to flush. When they don't work it's embarrassing, and when they do work, who cares?

Don't get me wrong. It's not that I have anything against Cleveland or the Browns or Drew Carey or Lake Erie. It's just that I could not be more indifferent.

The question you are really asking, though, is whether a team that needs a quarterback should take the risk of signing on Ben Roethlisberger. That depends on the team's goals. If it is to win Super Bowls, then bring him on board. If it is to provide illustrations of good behavior to a fifth-grade Sunday School class, then no. The funny thing about that, is that Big Ben has his counterparts in the Bible. Think of Samson. He was a hero who won battles. He also had major problems in his not-so-private life.

We have to realize some things about our football players in the NFL. First of all, there are a lot more of them than 50 years ago. Second, privacy and public morality were also different. Being acquainted with an NFL wife from that earlier era, I know stories of domestic violence that would have us all crying out in indignation today. In those days such things were not reported, either to the police or to the press.

We are breeding men for football like never before. A new race of humanity is evolving from the combination of pasteurized dairy products and weight rooms. From Mississippi to Nebraska to Samoa, whatever color they may be, these men are modern-day Samsons. They are quick, they are strong, they are enormous, and they have hormones working over-time. I am not talking about the dudes on the juice either. Steroids are not the issue. The issue is that a wildly popular sport is breeding gladiators for its violence. And I watch it. I love it because it is a war with rules. If my tribe of warriors in their green-and-gold medicine shirts prevail, I feel pride in my associations. If they are vanquished, I feel ashamed.

But as in most instances where violence is determinative of outcomes, there is collateral damage too. Hormones cannot be confined to three hours a week for their exercise. Adrenaline and testosterone want to find other outlets, and two chief ways are through fighting and sex. Football and all that comes with it takes care of the fight in most of these men, but not in all of them. And then there is the sex issue, like there was with Samson.

Ben Roethlisberger is living in a different world from the bad boys of football 50 years ago, when reporters left well enough alone. 40 years ago Joe Namath was a free-love hippie hero, with long hair and a longer list of liaisons. That was part of his celebrity. I am not saying that Broadway Joe would be guilty of anything today, and I am not saying Big Ben is guilty before things are proven against him. What I am saying is that in the bar scene, maybe Broadway Joe was in a cultural milieu and generation that had gotten caught up on the free love aspect before it had gotten caught up on the equal dignity of women both in nature and under the law.

If I am not making sense to you, try reading between the lines.

Today Tom Brady and Tony Romo are playboy quarterbacks. Kurt Warner was this generation's evangelical incarnation of Roger Staubach.  (And Brett Favre is this generation's Terry Bradshaw, except that he piled up stats instead of Super Bowl wins.  And Peyton Manning is Johnny Unitas.) Big Ben has his role to play too, but the rules have changed. In some cases the laws have changed too. The NFL is concerned about keeping up an image that families can trust. Ben has to understand that the NFL's good conduct rules apply to him to, the honky biker thug, and not just to the homeys who shoot themselves in the leg.

I like to watch Big Ben play. There is something impressive about watching professionals excel. No, impressive is not the right word. There is something entertaining about it. I am entertained by them, so I turn on the television to watch them. This does not mean that any of them should be above the law. They should not have been above the law 50 years ago either. In that sense we have made positive progress as a society.

On the other hand, if a sports league has rules that go beyond the laws to supervise grown men off the field like so many nagging nannies, and to impose fines even after criminal charges are dropped, then that is the choice the league makes.  These competitors should be aware of those rules and that abiding by them is part of the privilege of competition. There are other professions where certain types of troubles, whether legal or of another type, lead to suspensions and firings. Professional sports is not unique for having nagging nannies.

But this is my attitude about football players. I am entertained by the violence to the point that, if Big Ben is playing against Green Bay, I am hoping he gets destroyed in the pocket. Every shot he takes, though, is a punishment that I will never have to live with in my body. The uniformed gladiator is a commodity. I am indifferent to the human being in the helmet; I just want my tribe to win. Since that is my attitude towards the violence and the risks that are taken by the NFL's gladiators, then frankly, none of them owe me good behavior off the field. 

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