Count Jeanne Clark among those who aren't ready to don the #7 jersey of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger just yet.
On April 12, Georgia District Attorney Fred Bright declined to prosecute Roethlisberger on sexual assault charges stemming from an incident involving a 20-year-old college student at a Milledgeville, Ga., bar. Still, the 550 pages of documents made public at the conclusion of the investigation have given Clark reason to worry.
"I think a lot of the people out there in Steeler Nation are speaking out, and they're not happy," says Clark, who heads the Squirrel Hill chapter of the National Organization for Women. The allegations, she notes, came even as Roethlisberger is the defendant of a civil suit filed by a hotel employee in Nevada, also accusing him of assault.
According to police records, the Georgia victim clamed Roethlisberger exposed himself and proceeded to have sex with her while she was drunk, despite her telling him, "No, this is not OK."
Prosecutors decided not to prosecute, in part because the alleged victim wished to drop the case. But the accusations, Clark says, underscore the belief that "There's a prevailing attitude in the male-dominated world of sports that if you're a star athlete, you can treat women any way you want to. The Rooneys and the NFL need to take some serious action -- and not just with Ben Roethlisberger, but with the entire league."
Roethlisberger's accuser declined to pursue the case, attorney David Walbert explained in a letter, because "a criminal trial would be a very intensive personal experience. ... The media coverage to date, and the efforts of the media to access our client, have been unnerving, to say the least."
Alison Hall, the interim executive director for Pittsburgh Action Against Rape says she fully respects that decision. Even so, she adds, "You have to wonder -- as a lot of people are -- about [Roethlisberger's] decision-making process." Even absent a criminal charge, she notes that Roethlisberger could face temporary suspension or other sanctions. "The NFL and the Steelers have their own code of conduct here and those provisions should be used in this case," she says.
For activists like Clark and Heather Arnet, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Women and Girls Foundation, the accusations against Roethlisberger ought to prompt a broader discussion about the treatment of women.
"I think it's important that we don't just talk about Ben Roethlisberger," says Arnet. Although she's not sure what discipline Roethlisberger deserves, "An appropriate outcome for all of us would be to use this to discuss dating violence and sexual assault.
"I'm very encouraged by the strong response from Steelers fans and Pittsburghers that this is inappropriate behavior and it won't be tolerated here," Arnet adds. "No matter how famous you are."
Clark says she would like to see each NFL team hire a sexual harassment/sexual assault officer, "probably a female," to police the conduct of athletes. For Clark, the Rooneys would be the natural candidates to lead that effort -- and not just because of the controversy surrounding their quarterback.
Clark notes that team owner Dan Rooney has made great strides to establish racial equality in the league; the so-called "Rooney Rule," for example, requires teams to interview at least one black candidate for coaching spots. The Rooneys could lead on gender issues as well, Clark says.
"There's a lot of talk about 'a few bad apples,' but I'm not so sure that's the case," says Clark. "I think there's a system and culture of entitlement with superstars and it must be addressed."
And Arnet, for one, believes that the Rooneys have shown that they will address the issues. "We have a lot of faith in the Rooneys and the Steelers as a franchise. I trust that they'll evaluate [Roethlisberger] to see if he has the values and the judgment necessary to lead this team in this city. I believe they'll decide how he measures up going forward, and at the end of the day, they will make the right decision."