Why is Ben Roethlisberger Still Playing for the NFL? And Why it Matters
One with Heart Self-Defense Program Coordinator
In August 2014 the NFL announced a new, tougher policy on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault; a quick public relations response to the video-tape that went viral of Ray Rice assaulting his then fiancé Janay Palmer. As part of the NFL’s new commitment to address violence off the field, Commissioner Roger Goodell said “even one case of domestic or sexual violence is unacceptable.” He went on to say: “effective immediately, violations of the Personal Conduct Policy regarding assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force will be subject to a suspension without pay of six games for a first offense, with consideration given to mitigating factors, as well as a longer suspension when circumstances warrant… a second offense will result in banishment from the NFL”.[i]
Does this policy apply to their most talented, superstar athletes? Or is it a PR nod? The NFL lost an opportunity to walk their talk last March when, only seven months after Goodall’s announcement, they re-signed Ben Roethlisberger with a $99 million 5 year contract, making Roethlisberger the highest paid player in the NFL.[ii]
In March 2010 Pittsburg Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of raping a 20 year old college student in Milledgeville GA. Roethlisberger met her in a bar, bought her several shots of alcohol, had one of his bodyguards take her to an isolated hallway at the back of the bar where Roethlisberger exposed himself to her. While the bodyguard sat in the hallway the young woman verbally resisted and tried to escape, running to the first door she saw which, unfortunately, led to a bathroom. Roethlisberger followed her into the bathroom, shut the door and allegedly raped her.[iii]
Three of the young woman’s friends support her story. They saw the bodyguard ‘drag’ or ‘lead’ her down the hallway. They came after her because they knew she was drunk and were worried about her. They asked the other bodyguard to intervene and get her out of the bathroom. He refused. [iv]
The woman immediately reported the rape and went to the hospital for an exam. It is an understatement to say the investigation that followed was mishandled. Sergeant Jerry Blash, who did the initial interview with the accuser, had posed for photographs with Roethlisberger only hours earlier.[v] Blash discouraged the accuser from filing a report, immediately notified Roethlisberger of the allegations, and coordinated with Roethlisberger’s two bodyguards who happened to also be an off-duty police officer and an off-duty state-trooper, saying to them “there is no way this happened.”[vi] Multiple witnesses overheard Blash call the accuser a “drunken bitch” and say “this pisses me off, that women can do this”; statements that Blash later admitted making.[vii] The crime scene was never sealed off, evidence never gathered, and the bathroom was cleaned thoroughly the next morning. Despite lacerations, bleeding and bruising found during the hospital exam, the Georgia District Attorney determined there was not enough evidence to press charges.[viii]
The evidence was compelling enough to convince the NFL that an attack happened, but their response was minimal. They suspended Roethlisberger for six games for violating their Personal Conduct Policy then reduced it to four. He went on to play in the 2011 Super Bowl. During the 2014-15 season the NFL paid him $48.9 million making him one of the highest paid athletes in the world.[ix]
Not holding Roethlisberger accountable for the violent assault of a young woman is disturbing on its own, but by 2010 the NFL was aware that their star quarterback is likely a serial sex offender. In 2009 a civil suit was filed against Roethlisberger accusing him of rape. The suit was settled in 2012. During this same period, two other woman accused Roethlisberger of rape, but were reluctant to publically press charges so no action was taken.[x]
Victim blaming and stereotypes about who commits sexual assault are cultural biases that work against protecting the public from serial sex offenders like Ben Roethlisberger. They are the reason that rape is the most underreported crime, with at least 65 percent of rapes going unreported.[xi] These cultural biases mean that rather than starting with an objective frame of mind, doubt already exists in cases of sexual assault. This doubt infects every step of the justice process from reporting the crime to the way the initial evidence is perceived and handled to the way the jury and judge understand the evidence.
Victim blaming takes the focus off the actions of the perpetrator and raises doubt about the credibility of the accuser: how she was dressed, if she was drinking, whether she had previous sexual contact with the accused, all become part of the initial evaluation as to whether or not a crime was committed. In the Roethlisberger case the officer determined the accuser was not credible because she had been drinking.
This determination, along with the common misperception that a man with the social status of Roethlisberger wouldn’t force himself upon a woman, influenced a number of poor decisions that resulted in the mishandling of evidence to such an extent that the prosecution could not make a case against Roethlisberger. The bodyguard, later identified as Pennsylvania State Trooper Ed Joyner, who refused to intervene when asked by the friends of the accuser said something to the effect of “he’s an NFL quarterback with the Steelers…..he’s not going to risk doing anything stupid.”[xii]
It is worth noting in the Roethlisberger case that three men whose primary job is to protect the public - first responder sergeant Jerry Blash; bodyguard and off-duty state trooper Ed Joyner; and Roethlisberger’s other bodyguard, off-duty police officer Anthony Barravecchio - all coordinated to protect the accused. Also worth noting; this cozy relationship between law enforcement and bodyguards working for public figures is not unusual. This raises questions about objective police work when law enforcement is working for the alleged criminal. Their inclination to protect the accused is often tied to another common misconception that fuels victim blaming: that men, particularly public figures, are at significant risk for being falsely accused of rape.
In fact crime records show that the rate of false accusations of rape is 2 – 8 percent, only slightly higher than any other criminal accusation.[xiii] The real risk is that so few sex offenders are ever apprehended. It is estimated that of every 100 rapes only 35 are reported. Out of those 35, only 2 offenders ever spend a day in jail.[xiv]
In the Roethlisberger case, three officers of the law made bad decisions that compromised public safety based on common myths and misinformation about sexual assault. The fact that this case was not prosecuted when the accuser immediately went to the hospital where they found physical evidence of trauma; when witnesses reported suspicious behavior on the part of Roethlisberger and his bodyguards; and when Roethlisberger had previous accusations of sexual assault on his record, sheds some light on why women, many of whom do not have this kind of evidence to support their charge, are reluctant to report sexual assault.
When it comes to professional sports, victim blaming and pro-athlete sentiment coalesce in a way that almost assures athletes will not be held accountable. Professional athletes are rarely formally charged with crimes related to domestic or sexual violence even when there is evidence against them and, when charges are filed, they are rarely convicted. Between 2010 and 2014 there were 16 allegations of domestic violence or sexual assault against NBA players that were reported in the media. (There were certainly more accusations than this. Most accusations don’t receive any media attention). Of these 16 accusations only 1 resulted in a conviction even though most of the 16 incidents involved extreme physical violence and injury.[xv]
Currently there are 44 active NFL players who have been accused of sexual or physical assault, many of the assaults extremely violent, and many with enough evidence to warrant some kind of action.[xvi] While these 44 players perpetuate both the reality and perception of a violent sports culture, they comprise only 2.6 percent of the 1,692 players in the NFL. Sports is no different than any other walk of life; the majority of men are not, have never been and never will be violent sex offenders. But most of those who are, have a pattern of violent behavior and continue to reoffend until they are stopped.
In a 2002 study of 1,882 college students, 120 of them met the criteria for having committed rape. Of those, 63.3 percent had already committed an average of 5 rapes and more than half had committed other acts of violence.[xvii] None of these young men had been caught, the majority never will be. One study showed that when offenders are caught and given a thorough evaluation with polygraph backup they reveal dozens, sometimes hundreds of offences for which they were never apprehended.[xviii]
Why does it matter that Ben Roethlisberger is still playing for the NFL? It matters because the women he assaulted deserve justice. It matters because it is quite possible he will continue to offend until he is stopped. It matters because he and the small percentage of violent men still playing for the NFL misrepresent the majority of athletes.
Since we elevate superstar athletes to the status of hero, what they do off the field matters. Ray Rice, Ben Roethlisberger, and Ray McDonald to name a few, have been accused of serious acts of violence. Yet they are treated like heroes, paid like heroes, and idolized by countless young boys. Sports offers an enormous platform to reach men and boys. When we create a class of professional athletes whose behavior off the field is above reproach, we legitimize and even glamorize some of the worst of human behavior.
The values and behavior the next generation learns from us has much more to do with what we do than what we say. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that even one case of sexual violence is unacceptable. That is a step in the right direction, but what really matters is what he does. Ben Roethlisberger seems like a good place to start.
[i] Sharp, Katie. Aug. 28, 2014. NFL announces new domestic violence policy, SB Nation.
[ii] La Canforna, Jason, CBS NFL Sports Insider. March 14, 2015. Ben Roethlisberger’s new contract sets record marks for quarterbacks, CBSsports.com.
Cooling, Neal. March 14, 2015. Ben Roethlisberger’s contract: Value of a deal said to be as much as $108 million over five years, SB Nation.
[iii] Boone, Christian, Bill Rankin and Bill Torpy. April 26, 2010. QB's case in trouble from the start, AJC.com.
[iv] Withers, Bethany P. July 12, 2015. Without Consequence: When Professional Athletes Are Violent Off The Field, Harvard Journal on Sports & Entertainment Law.
[v] Boone, Christian, Bill Rankin and Bill Torpy. April 26, 2010. QB's case in trouble from the start, AJC.com.
[vi] Boone, Christian, Bill Rankin and Bill Torpy. April 26, 2010. QB's case in trouble from the start, AJC.com.
[vii] Withers, Bethany P. July 12, 2015. Without Consequence: When Professional Athletes Are Violent Off The Field, Harvard Journal on Sports & Entertainment Law.
[viii] Withers, Bethany P. July 12, 2015. Without Consequence: When Professional Athletes Are Violent Off The Field, Harvard Journal on Sports & Entertainment Law.
[ix] Broadly Staff. Dec. 8, 2015. There Are 44 NFL Players Who Have Been Accused of Sexual or Physical Assault. Broadly.
[x] Withers, Bethany P. July 12, 2015. Without Consequence: When Professional Athletes Are Violent Off The Field, Harvard Journal on Sports & Entertainment Law.
[xi] National Institute of Justice. Office of Justice Programs.
[xii] Withers, Bethany P. July 12, 2015. Without Consequence: When Professional Athletes Are Violent Off The Field, Harvard Journal on Sports & Entertainment Law.
[xiii] Lonsway, Dr. Kimberly, Archambault, Sgt. Joanne and Lisak, Dr. David. The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women. False Reports: Moving Beyond the Issue to Successfully Investigate and Prosecute Non-Stranger Sexual Assault, The Voice: Helping Prosecutors Give Victims a Voice.
[xiv] Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Why Will Only 2 Out of Every 100 Rapists Serve Time?
[xv] Withers, Bethany P. July 12, 2015. Without Consequence: When Professional Athletes Are Violent Off The Field, Harvard Journal on Sports & Entertainment Law.
[xvi] Broadly Staff. Dec. 8, 2015. There Are 44 NFL Players Who Have Been Accused of Sexual or Physical Assault. Broadly.
[xvii] Lisak, David, and Miller, Paul M. Nov. 1, 2002. Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists, Violence and Victims, Vol. 17.
[xviii] Salter, Anna C. PH.D. Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders. New York, New York: Basic Books, 2003. p. 12.
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