Big doubts about Ben: Support for Roethlisberger is wavering
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By Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY
PITTSBURGH — At Peppi's Old Tyme Sandwich Shops, the "Roethlisburger" remains on the menu — a mix of ground beef, sausage, scrambled eggs, grilled onions and American cheese, created in tribute to the Pittsburgh Steelers star quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
But these days, even the owner of Peppi's has joined fans here in wondering about Roethlisberger, whose on-field heroics — he led the team to Super Bowl titles in the 2005 and 2008 seasons — have been overshadowed recently by a Georgia woman's allegation that Roethlisberger sexually assaulted her. It is the second time in a year the 28-year-old quarterback has been the focus of such allegations.
"It's just frustrating to see a guy that's got a lot going for him and finds himself in another one of these situations," Jeff Trebac says. "But you just think why? How can this happen again?"
Roethlisberger is entering what would be the prime of a stellar NFL career. But he finds himself in another situation that has raised questions about his judgment off the field, led Steel City fans to wonder about their star's future, shaken one of the league's most stable franchises and prompted Commissioner Roger Goodell to make it clear that he was unhappy with Roethlisberger's conduct and would meet with him at the "appropriate" time.
The discontent stems from an allegation March 5 by a 20-year-old college student who said Roethlisberger sexually assaulted her in a nightclub in Milledgeville, Ga. No charges have been filed, and police have not revealed specifics of the alleged assault.
Roethlisberger has not commented, other than to say, through his attorneys, that he is "completely innocent."
The case is the third in a series of incidents that have called Roethlisberger's judgment into question. Last July, Andrea McNulty filed a civil suit against Roethlisberger, alleging he raped her in 2008. Roethlisberger denied the claim, no criminal charges have been filed and Roethlisberger has countersued. In June 2006, after winning his first Super Bowl title, Roethlisberger suffered a broken jaw and nose in a motorcycle accident. He was not wearing a helmet.
The Steelers have won six Super Bowls under the ownership of the founding Rooney family — lauded for building teams through stability, family-style loyalty to players and coaches and their active role in civic affairs.
At last week's NFL owners meeting in Orlando, Steelers president Art Rooney II said the team was on hold "until they complete the investigation."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who says he is "highly concerned for our franchise and Ben personally," elaborated at the owners meeting. "It's well known we're very, very conscious about how we do business, that we're highly concerned about our image perception, how we conduct ourselves."
Roethlisberger isn't the only Steeler making headlines. Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes is being sued by Anshonoe Mills, who alleges Holmes threw a glass at her, resulting in facial cuts, at a nightclub this month. Holmes denied wrongdoing in an interview with ESPN on Monday.
Also Monday, Roethlisberger did not report for the start of the team's voluntary workout program, and team spokesman Dave Lockett said the quarterback would not work out with his teammates this week. A mandatory minicamp opens April 30.
At the team complex last week, tight end Heath Miller, among players doing voluntary workouts, declined to comment. "Mr. Rooney's made a statement. Coach Tomlin's made a statement. So as players we're standing behind their statements."
While the investigation plays out, some already see a pattern.
"He doesn't have any judgment," says Pittsburgh-based sports agent Ralph Cindrich, a former NFL linebacker. "He is definitely, in the eyes of the law, not guilty (at this stage of the case). Still, you have to question his judgment with a 20-year-old college student. … Where is your mind?
"I don't think there's any question that Ben has lost the city. The Rooney family is just on hold trying to see what the facts are. But there isn't a bank of goodwill that Ben has to go to."
Stan Savran, a Pittsburgh TV and radio broadcaster for 34 years, says Roethlisberger's local reputation has taken a hit.
"I think his image has suffered. … Almost 100% have kind of lined up against him," says Savran, who does a talk show on ESPN Radio 1250 and regional TV for FSN Pittsburgh. Savran links that reaction to the region's devotion to the Rooneys.
"I think they buy into the fact that the Steelers not only win, but do things the right way. … They feel what Ben has done is a slap in the face to the Rooneys."
NFL discipline possible
Roethlisberger could face repercussions outside the courtroom before the Georgia case is completed.
The league's personal-conduct policy says the commissioner can require counseling and fine or suspend players for "conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence" of the NFL "even where the conduct itself does not result in conviction of a crime." Goodell expressed concern that Roethlisberger "continues to put himself in this position."
Should Roethlisberger, who signed an eight-year, $102 million contract in 2008, not be available for the season's start, Pittsburgh has no proven option at the team's No. 1 position. Dennis Dixon, 25, is under contract and has one start. Charlie Batch, a backup in Pittsburgh the last eight seasons, signed a two-year deal with the team last week.
At what point might an NFL club decide it's time to sever ties with a player?
"There's no perfect scenario you go through that governs all situations," says Charley Casserly, former general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans and now an analyst for NFL Network and CBS Sports.
Casserly says "verified facts" are key. "Has he been legally found guilty?" Casserly also says he'd consider whether there have been repeat offenses, whether the player "wants to prove" he can change behavior and whether he has become a "detriment" to the team.
As for fans, opinions vary.
Don Harvey, 44, says he was a "little miffed" at Roethlisberger when he first heard reports from Georgia because it was his second "so-called offense, dealing with the same type of problem."
Sharon Smith, 30, was in Roethlisberger's corner: "I think these women are full of crap and I think they're just taking advantage."
Says Noam Hanish, 25: "If he's guilty, he's guilty, and he'll go through the process."
Are sponsorships at risk?
In 2004, the Steelers made Roethlisberger the 11th overall pick in the NFL draft out of Miami University of Ohio. In Pittsburgh, he was placed in an ideal situation for a young quarterback to develop. But Roethlisberger became a starter early in his rookie season when veteran Tommy Maddox was hurt, and he led the Steelers to a 15-1 regular-season mark and the AFC Championship Game.
That type of success brought sponsorships, and Roethlisberger counts Nike among them. Last week, spokesman KeJuan Wilkins said Nike "declined to comment (on the current case)."
Ty Ballou, president and CEO of Pittsburgh-based PLB Sports, which markets the Big Ben's Beef Jerky brand, says the relationship will continue for now. But he expresses concern.
"You have to put yourself in good positions. And Ben unfortunately hasn't," Ballou says. "I hope this will truly be the last time something like this happens."
The quarterback is involved in charity work, and his Ben Roethlisberger Foundation has provided grants to support canine units at police and fire departments across the country.
For now, Roethlisberger appears to be eschewing the spotlight. An avid golfer — he is a regular at celebrity tournaments — he withdrew from a scheduled appearance at a pro-am scheduled for today and Wednesday in California.
Cliff Hite, the football coach at Findlay High School in Ohio during Roethlisberger's years there and now a member of the Ohio House of Representatives, says he hasn't spoken with him since his first Super Bowl win.
"I think the town is behind Ben. It always has been," Hite says. "I know the Ben that left here was a good guy, and I want to hope and pray that he still is."