What Kind of Girl Effect are Nike and Roethlisberger Promoting?

Last month, well paid and equally arrogant, Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was given a six-game suspension by the NFL following allegations of sexual assault. Women's rights advocates, as well as many Steelers fans, questioned whether the suspension went far enough and, in particular, focused on Nike's continued support of Roethlisberger. Yesterday, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put a financial price tag on Roethlisberger's suspension:

Something good will come out of Ben Roethlisberger's suspension. He will help retired football players, kids, education and medical research with what could be more than $3 million in fines (lost salary) if he misses six games (seven weeks) because of commissioner Roger Goodell's suspension.

I love the idea that Roethlisberger will lose some of his annual salary -- and that the funds will benefit worthwhile causes. But, with a contract worth $102 million, $3 million in fines seems like chump change. Nor is it likely to change Roethlisberger's behavior. His corporate sponsors continue to support him despite revelations that the sexual assault that prompted his suspension is just part of a four year downward spiral of behavior that is arrogant, abusive, immoral and possibly illegal. Not exactly ideal role model behavior.

But there is an opportunity here -- for both Roethlisberger and Nike to do the right thing. Both can serve as better role models for Nike's own The Girl Effect. A nonprofit organization founded by the Nike Foundation, with financial assistance from the Novo Foundation, the United Nations Foundation and the Coalition for Adolescent Girls, The Girl Effect seeks to break the intergenerational cycles of poverty, violence and abuse that oppress girls and women around the world. To reach that goal, The Girl Effect needs and wants men and boys to be positive role models. As Maria Eitel, the President of the Nike Foundation, wrote on the Huffington Post last year:

What men and boys believe about their own roles and the roles of girls has the power to impact not only the future of those girls, but also the future of humanity....The greatest change for girls comes when the men and boys around them show themselves to be leaders. These men and boys are heroes for girls. We need their behavior to become the norm.

And, here's what both parties can do to start:

  • Roethlisberger should undergo counseling to "unlearn" his abusive ways.
  • His suspension fees ($3 million), as well as his income from corporate sponsorships ($2.5 million), should be donated to The Girl Effect.
  • Nike should use the power of their sponsorship to educate athletes like Roethlisberger on their personal power to do good. They can follow the example of Michael Vick and The Humane Society. Nike can and should engage Roethlisberger in community outreach to educate other men and boys, including his fellow athletes, on respecting and supporting women and girls.

For Nike, undertaking these actions would send a powerful message that Nike Inc. and the Nike Foundation are aligned in truly supporting women and girls' rights. And, for Roethlisberger, it would prove that he was sincere when he stated publicly:

I absolutely want to be the leader this team deserves, valued in the community and a role model to kids. I have much work to do to earn this trust....And I'm committed to improving and showing everyone my true values.

If not, Roethlisberger and Nike may be on the receiving end of a very different kind of girl effect -- one that Jack Callum captured in his Sports Illustrated cover story of Roethlisberger:

(Pittsburgh) store owners are experiencing a Roethlisberger market downturn, with the exception of the dumb and dumber shirts depicting Tiger Woods and Big Ben. At Yinzers in the Strip District, 50-year-old owner Jim Coen has moved his bin of Roethlisberger jerseys to a storeroom in the back. "That's thousands of dollars worth of merchandise right there," Coen says. He points to the little girls' pink number 7 shirts emblazoned with Roethlisberger's name. Says Coen, "Would you buy your daughter this jersey?"