A trend is starting to brew in major American sports, and it’s forcing loyal fans to question how they view athletes that get hit with sexual assault allegations.
Year after year, top athletes in the most-watched sports are not only trying to win games, but also win back fans and restore their collective images after being charged with serious criminal offenses.
And with arguably the biggest game to be won in American sports less than a week away, Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has had the tall task of juggling sexual assault allegations as much as blitzing linebackers this season.
After allegations of sexual misconduct in 2009 plagued the 28-year-old, the two-time Super Bowl champion had to serve a four-game suspension to start this season, but was never actually was charged with a criminal offense. Still, the severity of the alleged crime was enough for fans and even non-fans across America to turn the cheek on the wild-child quarterback.
But Roethlisberger is just one in an increasingly long line of professional athletes who have been in trouble with the law, and the line between which crime is acceptable and unacceptable to forgive continues to blur.
Kobe Bryant, arguably the most prolific NBA player in the history of the game behind Michael Jordan, actually stood trial in an alleged rape case involving an Eagle, Colo., woman in the summer of 2003. No charges were ever executed and everything was filed outside of court, but Bryant stood a taller task than any NBA Finals — restoring his public image.
Four NBA titles later, Bryant’s fan base is as large as ever, supporters come from far and wide and very few critics hinge their feelings on the Los Angeles superstar on his moral blemishes.
Bryant shook off the temporary setback, and now is booed more for his actions on the court than in any scandal off of it. Roethlisberger, however, still can’t seem to shake off naysayers no matter how much he wins.
Bryant was able to escape a public death sentence by how the NBA league officials treated his situation. Bryant was never suspended during that season’s NBA playoffs, in which his Lakers reached the NBA Finals.
But because Roethlisberger, and convicted dogfighter Michael Vick, belong to the most nationally-renowned sport in not only the country, but also perhaps the world, their public image may never be restored the way Bryant’s was.
Some choose not to cheer for Vick for moral reasons, and that is OK. He was convicted of a crime and was sentenced to 23 months in federal prison for murdering and torturing animals that did not meet his standards in a fighting ring.
Roethlisberger’s situation is different. It is true, he has been accused of making ill-advised decisions and being immature, indeed he really is, but he has never crossed any line that Bryant did not. The accusations against him are serious, there’s no doubt about that. But if a court of law does not see Roethlisberger as a criminal, then why should we?
Active sports viewers have to make decisions on who they support and what jersey apparel they may wear based on an extremely blurred line. Which criminal offense is gentle enough to accept, and what must a convicted athlete do to restore his or her image?
Roethlisberger needs no additional supporters to be honest, because he just so happens to belong to the NFL franchise with one of the largest fan bases in history. But to sneer at the quarterback for allegations that were never actually proven isn’t acceptable.
So whether Roethlisberger throws three interceptions in a losing effort or three touchdowns in a victorious outing, the Super Bowl audience needs to make a decision of how blurry its criminal offense acceptance line actually is.