Ben Roethlisberger and the Existential Crisis

I used to not trust any male over the age of eighteen who said they didn’t follow the NFL. If you’re old enough to get drafted, you’re old enough to know that you’re supposed to like football. That used to be my personal philosophy. Anyone who dismissed football on intellectual grounds was just plain weird to me.

“Oh, but it’s just a bunch of millionaires throwing around a ball,” they’d say.

Then I’d muster up all sorts of red-state indignation and tell them that if they didn’t like it they could GET THE HELL OUT, and then I’d delete their number from my phone and tell them to go read a Russian novel for fun and cry about it.

Ironically, I am now the one who is sad and on the verge of an existential crisis. My boys keep letting me down.

We may never know exactly what happened in Milledgeville, Georgia, last Thursday night, but we do know that the Steelers’ 28-year-old quarterback was hanging out with an entourage of sorority girls at an establishment that does not I.D. its patrons. And that is extremely disappointing. I’m not here to moralize. After all, who am I? I’m just a guy who woke up this morning awfully sad. I truly hope that Ben is completely innocent, as his lawyer vehemently contends.

After all, I need a ray of sunshine. The NFL has been letting me down lately.

For instance, on the very day that the Roethlisberger news broke, the New York Jets agreed to restructure Antonio Cromartie’s contract, giving him 500k up front so that he could settle five—count ‘em five—paternity suits. The 25-year-old cornerback has seven children by six different women in five states. Even Bam Morris wanted to call Antonio to tell him to get his life together.

Think that’s ridiculous? Wait until you hear the Jets’ PR-slap-happy corporate no-speak statement about the deal, courtesy of general manager Mike Tannenbaum:

“We’re going to work with Antonio collaboratively to make sure we do everything organizationally to make sure he has the best opportunity to be successful.”

Neato! I had to take a shower after reading that sentence. Was that even human language?

My point is this: how ironic is it that NFL organizations spend millions of dollars on public relations and media training in order to tell the fans what they should think, yet they don’t seem to spend much effort teaching their own players to think. To act like men.

I woke up this morning and it all just seemed a bit silly. When Roethlisberger connected with Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone to win Super Bowl 43, I sprinted through the streets of Oakland and screamed happily into the faces of fellow Steeler Nation compatriots for two-and-a-half hours. People were climbing to the top of streetlights and hugging strangers and crying like a war had ended. A lot of people had T-shirts on that said “Believe,” with a Steelmark diamond dotting the i, and in that moment, it seemed like we were all apart of something bigger than ourselves. We believed.

And now, in the throws of the crusty, pulsing hangover from Ben’s Dudes Night Out, I feel that same strange/ashamed feeling I get whenever I look back and actually watch old WWF clips. What the hell was I watching? Who was I rooting so hard for? The truth is that I throw pillows and scream at my television and argue with people on the internet and paint my face like The Ultimate Warrior because I feel very strongly about guys who celebrate $91 million contracts by buying 25 bottles of $350 champagne for guests at a nightclub, as Mr. Julius Peppers just did. These are my boys, and deep down inside I want to believe in them.

That’s like rooting for The Million Dollar Man Ted DeBiase.

Were the smarmy Russian lit majors right all along for having a conscious objection to America’s game? Is it really just a bunch of spoiled millionaires chasing after a ball? Am I rooting for the heels? What does it all mean?

Miller Lite is the official beer of this existential crisis.

I wish I had answers. All I know is that in the wee hours of Friday morning, whatever happened in that club-with-a-VIP-room-yet-no-ID-scanner, Ben Roethlisberger broke what is referred to in television as the fourth wall. He stared into the camera glass-eyed, three-sheets and wearing a bizarre, clearance rack Ed Hardy shirt, and he became too real. He became too much like us.

Like Tiger Woods, Ben shattered the grand illusion we had of what life is like for a titan of sports. We cannot suspend our disbelief anymore. Them, like us, get shot down. Get too drunk. Send ridiculous text messages. Hurt. And are stunningly human.

In the wake of this past Super Bowl, after the ultra-serious, perpetually sober Peyton Manning stormed off the field in a huff, I actually praised Ben Roethlisberger for his nonchalant explanation of his game-winning drive in Super Bowl 43.

Roethlisberger said that he was “just playing playground ball.” That statement, so gloriously naïve and raw and awe-shucks awesome in the buzz of the “Six-Pack,” ripples with a lot more meaning today.

What happens—and how Steelers fans feel inside—when training camp rolls around in a few months has less to do with what really happened in Milledgeville, Georgia, and more to do with what happened to us when we heard the allegations. Everyone on talk radio and in the bakery and at the bus stop seems to have already slammed their gavel on one side or the other.

What’s going on with this world? Will this ongoing drama leave a mark on the Steelers, an organization defined by Pfc. Rocky Bleier’s sacrifice; and Myron Cope’s charitable towel; and Troy Polamalu’s parking lot football games? The questions are daunting.

I hope with every fiber of my being and every thread of my Terrible Towel that the only thing Ben Roethlisberger is guilty of is poor judgment.

Strangely enough, the only thing I can think of right now is an old story about Jack Lambert in the week leading up to the 1980 Super Bowl. The tale was originally recounted by the legendary Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated, who was following the Steelers in Pasedena:

Lambert and a few teammates were having a beer at the hotel bar when a gang of young co-eds approached. One of them spotted Lambert and asked, “Hey Jack, do you believe in astrology?”

There was no response. Lambert just sat on his bar stool and stared into his pint glass.

“What’s your sign, Jack? You know, astrology.” Finally, Jack Splat turned around and responded to the young hipsters.

“Feces,” Lambert said. And that was that.

It is easy to think of Lambert as an old, grizzled veteran. As a true professional. As a man who didn’t want to be bothered. Who had no interest whatsoever in buying the whole sorority house a round. The sad truth is that Lambert was the same age as Ben Roethlisberger, 28, at the time. Where have you gone, Jack Lambert? And more importantly, no matter who is telling the truth about what happened in Milledgeville, where as a society are we going?

WWJD?

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