Monday, February 7, 2011

The Box We Want Boffo Big Ben to Bust

Normal people of any stripe should not watch Super Bowl pregame shows. They offer bad history, bad biography, bad analysis and bad logic. Just when they finish laying waste to all of these, they also manage to be a bad version of Entertainment Tonight, country music concerts and daytime talk shows.

If you managed to overhear this year's pregame show while getting ready for a party or waiting seemingly forever for the game to start, you probably heard a lot of faulty analysis and logic about Pittsburgh Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Most fans of American sports can diagnose the bad analysis easily enough: "Ben Roethlisberger is one of the all-time greats because he just wins ballgames." But the bad logic was the more compelling. FOX NFL host Curt Menefee kicked off a theme that was carried throughout the pregame and into the game broadcast: this was Big Ben's "redemption season," and winning the Super Bowl would complete that redemption.

It takes an awful lot of question begging to construct any scenario wherein winning a particular ballgame can redeem anyone of anything, let alone two separate accusations of rape. What's more interesting is the converse implication, one the broadcast didn't address. To wit: if winning a Super Bowl morally redeems an alleged two-time rapist, then doesn't losing it confirm that he's just a piece-of-shit rapist? More importantly, why would anyone have any interest in an argument that tortured? What do they earn from that, and from whom?

"Baby, he's a baller. He just wins ballgames. Always"
The general pregame show contention — and, to be fair, one made in a lot of bad pregame print editorials — was that Ben Roethlisberger would reach the pantheon of legenday football quarterbacks if his team won, because he just wins ballgames. Okay. I mean, he's never played defense or special teams, but okay. With three Super Bowl titles before the age of thirty, he'd join rarified air shared only by Tom Brady, who is by now a guaranteed future Hall of Famer. Brady is also well-scrubbed, universally marketable, respected by his peers and enemies and, significantly, free from character questions. Drawing an equivalency between Brady and any NFL star currently playing couldn't be anything more than a compliment.

Besides, even if you don't like Brady personally, being in his company sparks debate about the legend word. Sports legends invariably become people immune to all but the most importunate "unserious" discussion. It becomes boorish to insist that Ty Cobb was a racist monster: the person saying that merely wants to assail shibboleths, some liberal who wreaks vengeance on heroes of the past to grind axes for future social wars. Insisting on truth creates a tedious exercise in veracity when we'd all prefer happy myths. And, even if we must concede certain shortcomings (Cobb was racist; Brady knocked up a lady; Big Ben, well, allegedly...), there are always records beyond dispute. How many Super Bowls did Big Ben and Brady win? How many? We rest our case.

Unfortunately, whenever you hear any player's ability justified with "he just wins ballgames," you are hearing from someone who is either too lazy to do research to make a good point or too stupid to craft one in the first place. If you're talking about men's singles tennis, it's probably a good tautology to rest on. But with any team sport, it's a complete mess of an idea.

It's especially stupid with a team like the Steelers, who have a formidable defense envied for being able to shut down opponents and to score points off fumbles and interceptions, taking the pressure off the offense. Anointing one guy as an all-time great for "winning" a game whose offensive/defensive divisions keeps him off the field for half of gameplay is sort of stupid. It's stupid even in baseball, where pitchers are singly accorded a win for a game. A pitcher can have a mediocre 4.00 earned run average but pitch for a team that scores an average of 5 runs per game. He's still a mediocre pitcher; he's just on a team with a great offense. Mediocrity tends to cherrypick to excuse itself, and rather than point to his ERA (a far better measure of his pitching ability), that mediocre pitcher will probably turn to wins to prove his status as a great player.

Unsurprisingly, this tactic seems to be one that Roethlisberger personally endorses. In Sunday's New York Times, he said,
My definition of an elite quarterback is one that wins football games. Obviously, you put up numbers, and I’m not saying you have to put up, throw for 350 yards a game or whatever, but putting up numbers, being consistent however you do it. If you're throwing the ball 15 times a game, what’s your completion percentage? Are you completing most of them? Are they just 5-yard passes or 10- to 15-yard passes? But at the end of the day to me, to be an elite quarterback is winning and losing.
In addition to being a rhetorical chum bucket that asks questions about how ballgames are won and then dismisses them in favor of a kind of QB-related "A is A" argument, the above passage carries a lot of psychological baggage. Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Brady all regularly overshadow Roethlisberger, by doing things like throwing a lot of high-percentage short passes for over 350 yards per game. As a result, outside of Steelers fans, they're considered superior quarterbacks. But, hey, if you're going on the "just wins ballgames" standard, then Roethlisberger is better than all of them except Brady, having won two Super Bowls — one more than Manning and Brees, and two more than Rivers.

This standard makes the questions he asks in the above passage sort of unintentionally funny or defensively bitchy. Because one of the big games he "just won" was Super Bowl XL, in which he posted the worst passer rating for a starting QB in a Super Bowl, with a dismal 43% completion percentage, a similarly dismal 123 total yards and a godawful 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. One of his wide receivers, Antwaan Randle-El had one more passing touchdown and 43 passing yards. Making matters worse, the game's officiating was so abysmal that one can make a neat case for its swinging the score decisively in Pittsburgh's favor. Five years later, referee Bill Leavy publicly apologized to Seattle Seahawks fans for how badly he officiated the game and admitted that his mistakes impacted the outcome.

Not a bit of this came up during Sunday's pregame mythmaking. It's certainly possible I missed a small segment here or there. But with a program so repetitively focused on the conceit that "Big Ben just wins ballgames" and the more focused conceit that "Big Ben just wins big ballgames," nobody bothered to mention that he didn't win his first big ballgame at all. In fact, he put up the worst performance at his position in history. And since he once again didn't play defense or special teams during the game, and he was — all bitter Seattle fans' claims to the contrary — not an official during the game, how could he possibly have "won" it?

These are just the concrete examples for how aggravating the hours of football "analysis" were, but one didn't even need to bother going into history for them. One could just look at this season. After spending four games on the sideline as part of the NFL's "Seriously, We're Really Going to Get Tough on Rape, No, Seriously, Why Are You Laughing?" policy, Big Ben started the remaining 12 games of the season. In the four games that someone else quarterbacked the Steelers, the team had a .750 winning percentage, going 3-1. In the 12 that he quarterbacked the Steelers, the team had a .750 winning percentage, going 9-3. And, hell, two of those Ben "won" are borderline at best, including one tragically Buffalo Bills-esque collapse and some reprehensible officiating against Miami.

By these empty outcome-only standards, Pittsburgh backup quarterback Charlie Batch just wins ballgames. The problem is, nobody needs to convince you of that, and for good reason, because nobody's accused Charlie Batch of raping multiple people.

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards Super Bowl winners."
Sometime during ESPN's earlier pregame show, scheduled not to compete against FOX's programming, former wide receiver and all-around moron Keyshawn Johnson had a stopped-clock moment and made a comment about Ben Roethlisberger coming to the stadium accompanied by a woman. I could kick myself for not thinking to record it, but he riffed briefly and uncomfortably on the idea that maybe, if Big Ben can walk around with a woman without being singled out for comment, maybe Michael Vick should come to the stadium walking a dog.

It was one of those moments that seemed initially to be stunning or in bad taste, the occasional scandalized reaction to basic truth entering a foully and thoroughly bullshitted discourse. It's very possible he was scolded for it. What it neatly pointed up, though, was how relentlessly objectionable the FOX pregame and gametime programming was, for its constant refrain of Super Bowl redemption for Roethlisberger. What Keyshawn said really shouldn't have taken any balls at all. What takes an enormous set of balls is basing hours of a nationwide sportscast to the idea that heaving footballs for touchdowns bathes one in the expiating tears of the Virgin Mary.*

* — Before we get into any details here, please accept that I'm going to drop the word "allegedly" from any mention of rape more out of laziness than any real certitude as to his guilt. I believe in American jurisprudence's reliance on the concept of innocent until proven guilty. However, I don't believe that applies to the extralegal advocacy of media organs forcing a narrative and making closing arguments on behalf of a defendant who will never see trial; nor do I believe that it applies to a rape that will never see a formal investigation because the crime scene was never secured and the sergeant who wrote up the rape accusation personally referred to the victim as "that drunken bitch." If you haven't read the excellent Sports Illustrated article on the subject, I suggest you set aside ten minutes for it. If anyone ever ghostwrites Sgt. Jerry Blash's autobiography, I heartily recommend the authentic and hip-sounding title, Bitch, Please.

At heart is the problem that doing your job and going about your life isn't a redemptive gesture when both of those things are easily accomplished when your job is not Professional Rapist and your secret identity isn't Amateur Rapist. Millions of American men over the age of 30 have managed to go over 10,000 consecutive days without rape. If on day 11,000 they commit a rape, then on day 11,001 go back to consistently not-raping, they haven't accomplished anything. They're still rapists. About the best you can say is that doubling down on succeeding at their job makes them career-oriented rape hobbyists.

Yet FOX's programming admitted no such distinctions. They even managed to cast being twice accused of rape as a dark cloud on an otherwise sunny personality, some adversity to be overcome. Most of the sports media has repeatedly traded in the conceit that, for Ben Roethlisberger, rape isn't character defining, it's character building. Consider this exchange, from a faux-intimate interview between Roethlisberger and former Pittsburgh quarterback and FOX personality, Terry Bradshaw:
TERRY: How long do you have to work to sell people on the new Big Ben?
Whoops, how'd I get in there?

Anyhow, this has been part of FOX and everyone else's strategy about the issue since mere days after the Milledgeville incident, after everyone stopped panicking and it looked likely that the second rape accusation would disappear from official channels as completely as the first. (Again, I can't recommend the Sports Illustrated piece enough. What it doesn't mention, and should, is that the first rape allegation was almost totally omitted from ESPN broadcasts for days.) Sports media is still a boys club, and it still circles the wagons through omission, denial and every kind of fingers-in-ears "lalalalalala I can't hear you" tactic imaginable.
Step One: Rely on allusion and euphemism to make the issue less off-putting. (Indiscretion! That could happen to anyone! I just indiscreeted into a maid!)
Step Two: Treat it as a career hurdle. (I kept trying to get over that maid, but I kept getting stuck. I just jumped and jumped!)
Step Three: Let Roethlisberger spin any softball thrown at him into something he's learned about himself and applied to his football goals going forward.
The entire process is so toothless that it hardly ever occurs to anyone that the nickname Big Ben would probably sound menacing to women who would prefer not to be raped by Ben Roethlisberger.

Some of this kid-gloves treatment of the subject and the subject matter (pun intended, uninvestigated, bleached and washed down a drain) might even be plausible if Big Ben hadn't already run through this narrative once before. Following his historical worst-ever "just wins ballgames" appearance in Super Bowl XL, Roethlisberger nearly killed himself riding a motorcycle through Pittsburgh without a helmet and probably while not fully sober. At the time, it was a wake-up call that he needed to be more responsible, party less and start making changes in his life in general. (The Sports Illustrated article quotes people who say they witnessed him riding a motorcycle without a helmet multiple times since.) Evidently, nearly turning your skull to paté and cramming your dick into some poor Georgian coed inspire the exact same life lessons. Terry Bradshaw nodded sagely when Roethlisberger shared this secret with him.

What pushed the sham moral theater from merely repugnant to accidentally sublime was that its repeated uncritical insistence and redemptive message leaned so much on question begging that its opposite intent became obvious. As said above, if somehow winning ballgames would allow Big Ben to receive his complete redemption — in some perverse John Madden-esque calculation, "One Win Equals Two Rapes" — then the opposite must be true as well. If Big Ben lost, then he must have just been a loathsome rapist stain on humanity, some luckily uncollected DNA swab of malice, intimidation, force, privilege and contempt for decency and lesser beings.

But that probably never occurred to anyone in charge, because it has nothing to do with the most important part of this broken logical exercise. Thinking like that doesn't sell jerseys.

"We got to move these frigid bitches / We got to move, they're profit's STDs."
I have three friends who are devoted Steelers fans. One of them is the funniest guy I know on Twitter. Another is a graduate student and writer who's appeared a few times as a guest on this site. Another, Chris, is a guy who has to juggle working full time and going to school with being a father to two kids. From where I sit, they span a good bit of the human experience, culturally and economically. Like unwilling coeds, this last year all of them have had to wrestle with Ben Roethlisberger. Because I know him best, I'll talk about Chris.

Chris exemplifies much of the Steelers' fanbase. He once lived in the city, albeit quite long ago, but now has no actual regional connection with the team. Save loyalty, nothing prevents him from adopting a new NFL team, one more convenient in terms of travel or the real costs of attendance or the psychological costs of reckoning with the team's quarterback. Nothing prevents him from abandoning the NFL entirely and becoming exclusively a college football booster.

From my Tumblr, my Twitter feed and Facebook comments, I've needled him about Roethlisberger, and I know it's been tough for him. I think any realistic NFL (or, really, any sports) fan admits that he's already rooting for laundry. The ephemeral tenures most players have with teams makes them something of an afterthought already, which serves a dual purpose. For the fan, allegiance strays from personalities toward the team as a whole, while protecting him from the ugliness or failings of the personalities themselves. To use a famous example, it's easier to be a fan of whichever team Terrell Owens plays for, this year, than it is to be a fan of Terrell Owens. For one thing, he's a gaping asshole. For another, he won't be around for long.

Prioritizing teams over individuals is also protective in the event of crime. It's easier to be a Ravens fan than a Ray Lewis fan, because "The Ravens" were not linked to a conspiracy to commit murder. Ray Lewis can diminish into the collective whole, not quite fully, but enough to comfort the fan. Although he was a superstar on the team, the collective abilities of the team far outweighed even Lewis' All-Pro talents. Where that mental distinction fails for Chris is the fact that, as talented and effective as he once was, Ray Lewis was not the Ravens, nor most of the defense. Football defense relies on dynamic multi-person scheming and reactive improvisation and can't function as an extension of a single person. Except in extreme cases, however, a team's offense either is the quarterback or totally runs through the quarterback. How, then, can you root for the "laundry" of the Steelers when rooting for 50% of their gameplay means "I root for Ben Roethlisberger"?

This presented Chris with the ultimate sports quandary. He decided to keep rooting for the Steelers, on two points:
1. "Rooting for the Steelers isn't an endorsement of rape."
2. "I feel it's important to remain loyal through adversity."
His first assertion was echoed by one of my other Steelers-fan friends, and it's tough to argue with. I don't think either of them endorse rape. On the other hand, I think they would both apply the reverse of their reasoning to issues about which they were passionate. For instance, Chris, as a parent, might actively deplore conditions of child labor. How delicately would he then parse my saying, "My giving money to The GAP and lending them support on message boards is not an endorsement of Singaporean and East Timorese children suffering open sores on their hands from sewing GAP clothing at slave-labor wages. It's just an endorsement of these sexy denim lines"? Isn't my buying their product or defending it an endorsement of the ugly particulars that assemble it? I don't like The GAP and won't defend it. I think their clothes suck, and I don't want them. But what if I did?

This addresses point number two by opening up the ugly line of questioning: "If the Steelers performance wasn't satisfactory to Chris — i.e. likely to produce wins — would he struggle to justify his support?" Bluntly speaking, Buffalo Bills fans don't twist themselves into ratiocinative knots over players because they don't expect anything from them. Fuck them: throw them into Lake Erie with a sackful of stones and feral cats. They'll keep losing anyway. The very fact that Big Ben was in a Super Bowl just a few hours ago makes him something worth torturing a value system over. The decision to abandon loyalty is much easier to make in the absence of any return on that loyalty. Either you stand by your team because you hope to get something in the future or are giving thanks for things you got the past.

But, by that same token, Chris could have decided that his loyalty in the past was rewarded by team victories in the past, then stopped rooting. Or he could assume that victories the future would be rewarded by future loyalty when he no longer had to ally his interests with a man who can represent the Steelers entire offense and also a bad episode of Law & Order: SVU. Neither condition necessitates fandom now, when it's morally treacherous. Moreover, neither choice requires parsing the idea of being loyal to the team "through adversity" as something distinct from — some sad pox-on-their-house happenstance unrelated to — "having a rapist as its most famous and potentially its highest-impact player and still cheering anyway."

It's a terrible interpretation of adversity, but it's probably inevitable when the simple human impulse to enjoy things you already enjoy collides with the idea of applying your own personal values, at a remove, to people who don't impact your life directly and tend to shoot off a lot of collateral pleasure. It's the same dilemma facing some poor kid who runs a Lethal Weapon fansite and doesn't know how to reconcile all his blog posts and Mel Gibson's being a Nazi.

Watching FOX's pregame commentary, I realized that the reason its message clanged so dissonantly on my ears was that mine weren't meant to hear them. That message was meant for Chris, a parent in the American heartland, a Steelers fan outside Pennsylvania, part of the massive Steelers diaspora. Or, really, not Chris himself, but a million other people for whom he might be an avatar, save for his eagerness to question and reason about this himself, without the insistent and unwavering pitch of the FOX NFL crew assuring him that Big Ben was good again. Gentle now. Let him watch your kids.

FOX and the NFL don't care if I buy into the redemption of Ben Roethlisberger because I didn't buy into him to begin with. I've bought out aggressively enough to root for other franchises, which amounts to the same thing for them anyway. I'm buying Opposition Merchandise.

FOX and the NFL need people in Chris' demographic to buy into Big Ben's redemptive tale, because it will hopefully mollify their stupid moral whatchamacallits and values-oriented angry-thingers. Big Ben is a nightmare for "the heartland folks." He committed a crime they probably expect only black people do, but he's a tall pasty white guy. Big Ben is supposed to be them, staring back at them. Meaty. White. Hard to tackle or move around without consent. The worst thing that could happen is if loyalty, tradition and self-identification met in a mirror and the thing staring back only shimmered for a moment as familiar, before resolving into a monster.