Roethlisberger needs to fix image with team, fans
PITTSBURGH—It's fans like Becky Rickard that Ben Roethlisberger has lost.
The 33-year-old Rickard is a Pittsburgher and a fan of every team in town. She's come out to see the Pittsburgh Pirates play, even though they haven't had a winning season since 1992, when Roethlisberger was just a backyard quarterback.
She should love the Steelers and their six Super Bowl titles, including two under the direction of Roethlisberger. Right?
"I had a Ben jersey and gave it away," said Rickard, who on this night has replaced her expensive, tossed-aside Roethlisberger jersey with a Pirates T-shirt. "We're a proud city and we don't like anything to make us look bad. Ben has tainted what our image is."
Rickard might as well be speaking for many of the 300,000-plus citizens in this clannish Rust Belt town.
Roethlisberger has worn out his welcome in Pittsburgh.
The good will generated by those NFL titles, capped by his memorable last-minute TD pass to Santonio Holmes in the Super Bowl 15 months ago, is all gone. It's been lost in Roethlisberger's night of tearing through a Georgia college town wearing a devil T-shirt, one that ended with an underage college student accusing him of sexual assault in a nightclub bathroom. The case won't be prosecuted, but the quarterback's latest episode of bad behavior has destroyed his reputation in Pittsburgh and beyond, and shamed his team and its highly regarded owners.
And the twist is that while Pittsburgh can't stand him the Steelers can't cut him. At least not soon, given the $50 million the team has spent on Roethlisberger's salary and signing bonuses since 2008.
As virtually everyone in Pittsburgh knows, this isn't the first time Roethlisberger has found trouble.
He was already the defendant in a Nevada lawsuit, accused of sexually assaulting a hotel employee, when he and his entourage went out partying March 4 in Milledgeville, Ga.
Before that, there was the 2006 motorcycle accident after the first Super Bowl victory, with Roethlisberger getting badly injured while riding helmetless and without a permit.
Now there are hundreds of pages of police reports detailing his boorish actions in Georgia, and an unprecedented six-game NFL suspension (which could be reduced to four games) for a player not charged -- much less convicted -- of a crime.
Tales once whispered about Roethlisberger skipping out on restaurant bills or refusing to pay cover charges or greens fees have suddenly become common knowledge. Suddenly, people remember that he often scribbles only a handful of autographs a day during training camp.
Mark Baranowski is among those who hopes he never sees Roethlisberger again.
The owner of the popular Cabana Bar, near Roethlisberger's home in Gibsonia, once saw the quarterback regularly -- Roethlisberger even staged a party there on the one-year anniversary of his motorcycle crash.
But, fed up with Roethlisberger's attitude, manners and shenanigans, Baranowski got the word out -- every other Steelers player could enjoy themselves at his place for free. But Roethlisberger had to fork over the cover charge he always balked at paying. Roethlisberger hasn't been back.
"He's not a good guy," Baranowski said.
Many seem to share his opinion. Pittsburghers have peeled the once-ubiquitous "Big Ben 7" stickers off their bumpers, banned their children from wearing his jerseys or simply dumped the expensive uniform tops in the trash. Nationally, Roethlisberger's jersey dropped out of the NFL top 25 in sales in April after ranking 11th for the year ending March 31.
When news of Roethlisberger's suspension was flashed on the PNC Park scoreboard on April 21, fans booed loudly -- at the player, not the punishment.
Not long after that, the Pittsburgh Zoo took Roethlisberger's name off a totem pole comparing his height to that of an elephant. They replaced it with that of hockey Hall of Famer and Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux after zoo guests complained.
There's no more Big Ben's Beef Jerky, either -- the product's owner cut ties with Roethlisberger, saying it no longer wanted to be associated with him.
"I hope he gets the heck out of here," Bill Ehrman, a 32-year-old University of Pittsburgh medical school resident, said last week at the Pirates game.
Pittsburgh may not be the economic engine it once was, but residents have a strong bond to the city and an emotional attachment to their football team that may be unrivaled in the NFL. Rooted in that sense of tradition is a belief in decorum. Proud to be the home of Mister Rogers, the city was chosen this month as America's most livable by Forbes.com -- an honor also bestowed last year by The Economist magazine.
Roethlisberger gets a failing grade from Pittsburgh for politeness. Contrition, too.
"I would love for him to come out and have one of his press conferences and really mean it, say, 'You know what, I (messed) up, I was a pompous ...," said Chris Hart, 44, of suburban Allison Park. "He's been acting like he was forced to do it. What is he? Twenty-eight years old? He's acting like he's 21."
Roethlisberger's public persona is the opposite of Penguins star Sidney Crosby, who quickly ascended to a Lemieux-like pedestal because of his skill, professionalism, maturity and success.
If Roethlisberger is 28 going on 21, Crosby is 22 going on 32; he's already won a scoring title, a goal-scoring title, the MVP award and the Stanley Cup.
As fans love to relate, Crosby is so wholesome he still bunks at the Lemieux house, valuing family life over being the single owner of a fancy mansion like Roethlisberger's, which features a million-dollar swimming pool with his No. 7 at the bottom.
"Sidney Crosby is the guy who should be at the clubs hanging out; he's in that college-age range," Rickard said. "It makes Ben look bad because he's older, he's been around and he should be out of that phase of his life. People turn to Sidney as their exemplary superstar who never has an ego."
Count the Penguins among those who don't want much to do with Roethlisberger these days. According to a team source with knowledge of the situation, Roethlisberger was told he couldn't sit in a private team box during the ongoing NHL playoffs. Just too much dirty laundry.
Right now, nobody wants to hear good-guy stories that acquaintances relate about Roethlisberger: picking up the tab for a Thanksgiving feast for Ronald McDonald House residents; footing all expenses for a stranger's birthday dinner party that was taking place close to his own table; buying police dogs for departments that can't afford them.
"If he throws an interception, he's going to be booed like you don't believe," Rickard said. "He's going to get booed before he throws a pass, for what all he's done. He's going to have to really, really play well to gain us back. And start being more respectful to everybody."
One thing about the Roethlisberger case stuns former NFL player turned Pittsburgh-based sports lawyer and agent Ralph Cindrich.
"Never in the history of the city can I recall anything close to it," Cindrich said. "I think most are offended because of not only the city, but how it reflects on the Rooney family -- if there's any franchise that doesn't deserve this, it's this one."
For 77 years, the Rooneys have operated a model NFL team, one so ingrained into the community that people will sometimes recall major life events -- births, weddings, funerals -- by what happened in Steelers history that season.
Two months ago, coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers expect their players' conduct to be "above and beyond that of our peers." Yet the Roethlisberger incident and the recent trading of Holmes only after a series of off-field issues has led the Steelers to be compared to the Bengals and Raiders, teams with a history of employing troubled players.
The Roethlisberger mess is especially worrisome to Dan Rooney, the Steelers' primary owner and chairman emeritus who was appointed ambassador to Ireland by President Barack Obama. Rooney's son, team president Art Rooney II, runs the team on a daily basis and ultimately made the decision to keep Roethlisberger.
While Dan Rooney has mostly watched the Roethlisberger affair play out from a distance, those close to him know how much the case has troubled the man who ran the Steelers on a daily basis for more than 30 years.
"My job is to be in Ireland," the elder Rooney said during a recent visit to Pittsburgh. "I would just say it's a serious matter, and it's being handled properly by (management). I think they're handling it very well."
While Art II has maintained a calm but stern stance -- he worked with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to determine the length of the suspension -- his unhappiness with Roethlisberger is well known within a tightlipped but tidily run organization. To date, only director of football operations Kevin Colbert has dared to offer any public support for Roethlisberger, saying the quarterback has earned the right to attempt to turn his life around.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the Roethlisberger matter doesn't concern the federal government. Still, the ambassador cares about the situation.
"Dan Rooney, during his time as one of the pillars of the National Football League, has always set a very high standard for himself and his employees," Crowley said. "I doubt that has changed at all with his shift to being ambassador to Ireland."
Yet Roethlisberger is still a Steeler. The reason is simple. Even if the city can't stand him and the owners are angry, the team simply can't let him go and expect to remain a Super Bowl contender.
With an aging roster and a defense that could be past its peak, the Steelers may have only one or two shots remaining at a third NFL title since 2004 with their current roster. Jettisoning Roethlisberger in his prime likely would require years of rebuilding that might prevent James Farrior and James Harrison, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu from realistically contending for another title.
It's not easy to find a new quarterback to win a Super Bowl, as the Steelers know. They went through a dozen starting QBs after the Terry Bradshaw era ended in 1984 before landing Roethlisberger, who has produced their only two Super Bowl victories in the past 30 years.
The Steelers chose to retain No. 7 and all the baggage he brings, hoping their fans -- as fed up as they are -- someday will forgive, if not totally forget.
"I'm sure we'll get this turned the right way," said Smith, a defensive end and a team leader. "(Why) wouldn't you keep him? The man's a great quarterback. I mean, he comes out there and wins games."
Release him? Trade him? Nose tackle Casey Hampton finds the idea preposterous.
"What are you cutting him for?" Hampton said. "The same fans who say they should cut him are the same fans who will be cheering if we win the Super Bowl."
Polamalu, a soft-spoken and deeply religious player, declined to say that Roethlisberger let those teammates down by being suspended for six weeks. But it was revealing when he said, "There are really good guys (in the NFL), like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but there also are examples of what Ben is going to be able to do, turn his life around."
While Polamalu predicts Roethlisberger will return successfully, the challenges will be monumental when the suspension ends sometime in October. Roethlisberger won't have played a meaningful game since January, and the reception he gets -- home and away -- could be brutal.
In his only public appearance since prosecutors opted not to charge him, Roethlisberger said he wants to come through.
"I absolutely want to be the leader this team deserves, valued in the community and a role model to kids. I have much work to do to earn this trust," he said. "And I'm committed to improving and showing everyone my true values."
The Steelers and their city can only hope Roethlisberger keeps his word.
Alan Robinson has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers for 28 years.
(This version CORRECTS reference to Roethlisberger's name in zoo display, sted picture)