On Sunday night, Ben Roethlisberger played what may be his final game in the NFL. For 18 years, the Pittsburgh quarterback has been one of the biggest names to wear the famed black and yellow uniform. The final game of the Steelers season ended in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, 42-21, but that didn’t stop announcers from heaping praise on the man who probably never has to pay for his own beer anywhere inside the state of Pennsylvania. Roethlisberger exited the field to cheers and clicks from cameras crowding around him, desperately wanting to get one last photo of the football giant.
There is only one problem with this storybook ending to his illustrious football career: It should’ve never happened. Ben Roethlisberger should’ve been kicked out of the NFL long ago after being accused of sexual assault twice. But Big Ben — as he’s known around the Burgh — gets to walk off the field as a beloved sports hero whose sexual assault allegations are downgraded to acts of immaturity, because when it comes to women’s claims against NFL stars, sadly, the NFL just doesn’t care.
In 2009, a woman filed a civil suit against Roethlisberger, claiming the football star raped her while staying at a hotel where she worked the year prior. He reportedly called for help with his television, and when the woman arrived, he blocked the door, refusing to let her leave. The woman claimed that Roethlisberger threw her on the bed and raped her. The case was settled out of court in 2012.
In 2010, the then-28-year-old quarterback was partying at a college bar in Milledgeville, Georgia. A college student claimed that Roethlisberger was plying her and her friends with shots. She said that his bodyguard grabbed her and took her to a hallway, where the quarterback was waiting with his penis out.
“I told him it wasn’t OK, no, we don’t need to do this and I proceeded to get up and try to leave,” she said, according to ESPN. “I went to the first door I saw, which happened to be a bathroom.”
She said the 6-foot-5-inch QB followed her into the bathroom and shut the door.
“I still said no, this is not OK, and he then had sex with me,” she said. “He said it was OK. He then left without saying anything.” A medical examination found that the accuser had suffered superficial cuts and bruising and slight bleeding in the genital area. The woman’s lawyer asked the district attorney not to go forward with the case, adding that she wasn’t recanting her story but was afraid of the “extraordinary media attention” it would receive.
In the 2008 claim, the NFL did nothing. In 2010, with Commissioner Roger Goodell wanting to show that the NFL was tough on sexual assault claims, he issued a six-game suspension against Roethlisberger, which was later reduced to four games for “good behavior.”
“You have told me and the Steelers that you are committed to making better decisions,” Goodell said in a letter to the Steelers QB. “Your actions over the past several months have been consistent with that promise and you must continue to honor that commitment.”
And just like that, Roethlisberger was back in the game because, apparently, the NFL only cares about itself. Women are expendable at the altar of professional football. Even the players themselves are at times treated as if they are disposable. All are deemed a necessary sacrifice as long as there are billions to be made.
The NFL wants people to believe that it cares about its players and the lives they affect outside of football, but it doesn’t. The league has been careless with players’ health and has disregarded troubling antics that could be a direct result of head injuries. Look at recent outbursts from Antonio Brown, who either quit or was kicked off of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers depending on who’s telling the story. Look at Richie Incognito. In 2019, Incognito threatened to shoot up the funeral home responsible for burying his father if they didn’t let him cut off his father’s head. Police arrived and found guns in Incognito’s truck. He was arrested. The NFL suspended him for two games, and he’s currently playing for the Las Vegas Raiders. Or what about former tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., who reportedly masturbated in front of his teammates and carried a silicone mold of a woman’s torso for reasons I have no interest in naming? The NFL gave him a pass. He’s currently serving 14 years in prison for rape and other sexual assaults against several women in Southern California.
Of course, there are exceptions. The NFL really cared about Janet Jackson’s nipple after it was exposed during the 2011 Super Bowl halftime show, and in 2014 when a video surfaced that appeared to show former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancé, now wife, Janay Palmer.
I fully believe had there been no cameras to capture Rice hitting Palmer and then dragging her limp body out of the elevator, Rice would still be playing in the NFL. But everyone saw that horrible video and that forced the NFL to come out strongly.
The organization only issues stiff punishments when it absolutely must. Take Michael Vick, for example. In July 2007, Vick was arrested and sentenced to 23 months in federal prison for his role in a dog-fighting ring being run out of one of his homes. Because the story was national news, the NFL didn’t reinstate Vick until 2010. He would go on to win Comeback Player of the Year. While his crimes were indefensible, his punishment was just. So far, the only repercussions the NFL has doled out to Roethlisberger for his alleged crimes is a four-game suspension.
But I may as well be writing this column in invisible ink, because the NFL doesn’t care about my opinion. It functions like a private city with its own government, judges, town hall and police force. It operates outside of the real world and doesn’t follow societal norms. Never forget that Goodell, the one who is supposed to hold NFL teams and players accountable, is paid by the NFL. That’s right; the NFL owners pay Roger Goodell to police the league, which is like hiring a cocaine-addicted K-9 to sniff out drugs. And he’s not just paid by the owners, but paid handsomely. In 2021, NFL owners met and agreed to give Goodell a $128 million compensation package, which made him the highest-paid professional sports commissioner by a landslide.
The NFL is a business, and if the players are the product, talent will always dictate the punishment. Everyone is in on it, from the players to the coaches to the owners to the commissioner. Everyone is looking to keep the ball moving down the field at all costs. The NFL will always protect the NFL, and if you are waiting for a flag on the play, keep waiting. Roethlisberger is likely headed for the Hall of Fame and what won’t be mentioned is the damage he caused others along the way.