Tossing Softballs to the Football Star | Slag Heap

Tossing Softballs to the Football Star

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So I finally got around to watching Ben Roethlisberger's interviews with Sally Wiggin and Bob Pompeani this weekend. And I was shocked by the total lack of contrition, the blatant failure to learn anything from previous mistakes. 

Not on the part of Roethlisberger. On the part of local media. 

How bad were these interviews? Let's put it this way: Roethlisberger was only asked once, "If you had to do that all over again, would you change what you did?" And that question referred to Roethlisberger's haircut.

I've reprinted, pretty much verbatim, all the questions Pompeani and Wiggin asked at the end of this post. Look them over yourself. But to me, about the only questions that are even close to being hardballs involved whether Roethlisberger has a drinking problem. Otherwise, what leaps out at you is that the single most important question -- is it true? -- is the one question that never gets asked.

Of course, Roethlisberger wouldn't have answered questions about his alleged assault on a female college student anyway. (ADDED: And it should go without saying that he's always denied the rape allegations.) At the outset of his interview with Wiggin, he made it clear that his lawyers had advised him not to speak to the Milledgeville incident at all.

Pompeani, obligingly, didn't bother to ask a single question about what Roethlisberger did that evening. (Pompeani did briefly ask about the actions of Ben's posse, out of concern that they'd been "thrown under the bus at times, from a media point of view.") While Wiggin at least avoided seeming obsequious, asking her questions without apology, Pompeani's performance was a wince-inducing series of softballs. ("I was going to ask you: Is settling down -- is that something that's a good option down the road?")

Even without querying Roethlisberger on the criminal allegations, though, there were still plenty of questions that both reporters avoided.

Is it true -- as Sports Illustrated reported -- that Roethlisberger routinely rode his motorcycle without a helmet, even after an accident nearly ended his career, and after swearing to fans that he would always wear a helmet in the future? 

Is it true that Roethlisberger exposed himself to a third woman unconnected with other complaints, and later forced his hand up her skirt?

Hell, is it even true that Roethlisberger routinely "[threw] his weight around" at bars and restaurants, "asking those who got in his way, 'Do you know who I am?'" That he habitually treats waitstaff contemptuously? That he stiffed them on tips?

None of these questions came up, and in fact, neither interviewer made much of an effort to establish the facts of Roethlisberger's behavior. Wiggin did at least ask Roethlisberger whether "you have anything to say" about the Milledgeville incident. And she came the closest to actually pinning Roethlisberger down on specifics when she brought up the Sports Illustrated article, which "detail[s] behavior that was sometimes mean-spirited and rude."

Even there, though, the question wasn't "are the allegations true?" but "what would you say to fans in light of the allegations?"

In fact, both interviews almost completely avoided the topic of "what happened," shifting to the safer ground of "how did that make you/your family/your fans feel?" Pompeani's "question" about the SI story, for example, was this: "The [article] on Sports Illustrated -- that had to hurt."

The interviews were like therapy sessions, where the multiple allegations of sexual assault, and countless claims of boorish behavior, were really just part of a glorious journey of self-discovery. (Appropriately, the KDKA interview leads in with some tinkling music, reminiscent of a Hallmark special about heartache and redemption.) As Pompeani put it, "You seem to have grasped this whole thing and saying, 'It's an opportunity for me to move forward now -- a whole new chapter.'"

This grueling line of inquiry -- grueling for the audience, I mean -- set Roethlisberger up for a sort of bogus confessional, in which he vaguely admitted to various bad behaviors without ever having to describe what they were. We were told that he'd lost his way, that he'd allowed the fame to go to his head, that he hadn't always been a son his parents could be proud of. But where exactly he strayed? That's none of our business. We were assured, however, that he never meant to hurt anyone, and that if he did hurt someone's feelings somehow, somewhere, then he sure is sorry.

It was contrition without guilt, apology without acknowledgement. Roethlisberger confesses to everything and nothing; he asks our forgiveness without ever telling us what, exactly, we're forgiving him for. I mean, you could take copy-and-paste Roethlisberger's apology and use it in almost any situation, ranging from a bad break-up to second-degree murder:

I was lost for a couple years there, and I let some things go to my head and get the better of me. But I never set out to hurt anyone, and I'm just trying to close the door on my previous mistakes. I'm reconnecting with my family, my faith, and trying to be the person I know I can be.   

OK, well, so what, right? Who expects serious digging from the local TV news? Especially about a star athlete in a jock-sniffing town like this one?

I don't, and ordinarily, I wouldn't care either. But part of Roethlisberger's problem, it seems to me, is that so much of his behavior has been enabled by media and fans hell-bent on idolizing him.

What's most interesting about the allegation that Roethlisberger broke his promise to wear a helmet while motorcycling, for example, is that a KDKA news crew reportedly filmed him doing it. As SI reports, their footage "showed Roethlisberger giving them the finger as he sped away, but the video never aired. [S]ources believe the story was killed out of fear that it would damage KDKA's relationship with the Steelers."

Think about what this little anecdote says about Roethlisberger's attitude toward the fans, and towards the media those fans rely on for information. Even more, consider what it says about the media's willingness to roll over for that sort of treatment -- the guy can flip off your cameraman when caught in a flagrant deception, and yet you'll still cover up for him. Is it any wonder that so many of the allegations made against Roethlisberger -- from "do you know who I am?" behavior at bars on up -- have in common an apparent sense of entitlement?

We should note that KDKA management denies the cover-up allegation, but I'm willing to believe it's true, for a variety of reasons. One of them is Pompeani's interview, which of course didn't involve any questions that might implicate his own employer. (In fairness, Wiggin didn't ask about the incident either.)

So what are we left with? We have Roethlisberger's claims of contrition, but we've heard those before. He may or may not mean it this time. But one thing that hasn't changed, these interviews make clear, is the dysfunctional relationship between Roethlisberger and some local media outlets. They're still willing to work overtime to make him look good. Whether he deserves to or not. 

Questions posed by WTAE's Sally Wiggin to Ben Roethlisberger:

In your April 12th statement you said you were not going to talk about the incident on March 5 in Milledgevile, GA. But DVDs have now come out -- interviews with the accuser. Have you seen them?

Do you have anything to say now that this is all out?

You certainly have probably told your side of the story to your parents and your sister. How difficult has this been for them, going through all this?

What was the turning point with your father? I mean, they must have wondered who you were.

In that statement in April, you apologized to your family, and your teammates, the coaches, the Rooneys, the NFL. But what do you owe the fans right now? Because you know, the stories in Sports Illustrated -- there are stories that detail behavior that was sometimes mean-spirited and rude. What do you say to them?

Did alcohol play a role in this? Do you have an alcohol problem, Ben?

When you step on the field for the first time -- whether it’s four games or six games -- there are people who don’t buy this, they think it’s marketing. They think you’re doing it just so you can play football and make more money. They’re out there, they’re detractors, and they’re going to boo you. How do you play well and win for your teammates under those circumstances?

In the past, some of your teammates have been critical. Have they circled around you? Have they supported you in a way that has either surprised you or been something you expected?

Questions asked by Bob Pompeani, KDKA-TV: 

I guess -- I don’t know how I would describe the last several months, but what has it been like, the last three months of your life?

I remember down in the locker room, right after that, you had a little press announcement where you made a statement, and you apologized. And I’m just wondering what you specifically apologized for -- to fans, to teammates, your ownership.

Kind of dovetailing with what you just said, it seems like there kind of is a culture of athletic entitlement, or at least you’re built up to a certain level, and it may not even be your choosing, but you are. Did you yourself get caught up in maybe the big ben persona?

So you got caught up in that personally?

So you think as a result of that, things start happening too fast, things get out of control. Do you think you’re to the point where the reputation is a Big Ben -- but then you realize, after going through what you went through, that maybe the reputation has nothing to do with the Big Ben football player. My question would be then, did you hit rock bottom through this whole process, and if so, how you want to rebound from that?

I think you alluded to this earlier about people piling on. And it seems like it was open season on Ben Roethlisberger. I don’t think anyone could ever understand what that’s like until you’ve gone through it yourself. You have -- do you think people piled on? I mean, the media reports came out everywhere. It seems like everybody had an opinion and a comment about you. The hangover thing on Sports Illustrated -- that had to hurt.

How has this whole experience, Ben, affected your relationship with your mom and dad and sister?

Were there hard times in there when you first had to confront them?

Let me go back to when you were in the locker room. You were criticized for your appearance that night. The very next day you’re in New York, and you had a totally different look -- with a suit and clean-shaven look. If you had to do that all over again, would you change what you did?

They came out with a six-game suspension. Now, you’ve never been charged with anything. When you first heard it, your reaction was what?

You wanted to talk a little bit about Tony and Ed, your bodyguards. They’ve been kind of dragged under the coals here and thrown under the bus at times, from a media point of view. Can you talk about what they did, what they were supposed to do, and have they gotten an unfair rap in this whole thing?

So they did everything that night to help you?

Did you happen to hear what Terry Bradshaw came out and said about you?

He was critical, and I’m just wondering: Number one in his case, I remember you guys when you first met seemed to have a cool relationship. I don’t know what’s happened since. Have you reached out to anyone in particular in this whole process, whether it’s former players, coaches, people you know and trust for advice, for …

So you had a long conversation with Cowher?

[Was it] very helpful?

What can young boys and girls who idolize you learn from your experiences?

And you're totally committed to it [being the best person off the field he can be]?

With regard to the new Ben. I just want to get your response to -- alcohol seemed to play a role in incidents. Have you ever had an issue with alcohol, and will the new Ben make alcohol no priority?

Getting back to what you said about role models. Charles Barkley once was quoted saying, "We're not role models." So you disagree with that. You think people of high stature should be?

I was going to ask you: Is settling down -- is that something that's a good option down the road?

Aside from Cowher, who have been some of your closest confidantes during this whole situation?

Two other things, just real quick. Number one, we get suggestions just like I'm sure you do about having a wife. We've heard, maybe it would be good symbolically for you to change your number, to indicate a new Ben Roethlisberger. Have you ever thought about that?

The other thing we've seen a lot of, is that a lot of apparel stores have had a hard time selling number 7, which was once one of the top-selling things in the NFL. Do you reach out to any of those people, do you talk to them, do you try to make good? Because they've invested in you.

[While walking down a path outside the Roethlisberger home together] Nice to be out here, huh? How much do you need that, or have needed it?

You've been through a lot on the field. Would you say this is the hardest thing you've ever dealt with in your life?

You seem to have grasped this whole thing and saying, "it's an opportunity for me to move forward now -- a whole new chapter."

A lot of people look at big-time superstar athletes and will say, "It's important for them to give back to their own local communities." I would imagine you feel stronger about that now than ever.

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