What About Ben?

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I didn’t watch the Steelers-Ravens game on Thursday Night Football, and it’s not because I’m already overdosing on the NFL … although, with the obscene proliferation of televised games this year, that’s not altogether out of the question. No, I just couldn’t bring myself to watch a game that could fairly be called the Super Bowl of Misogyny.

We all know about ex-Raven Ray Rice, who viciously punched his then-fiancé Janay Palmer in an elevator in an Atlantic City casino last February. After the League bungled its “investigation” of the crime–including interviewing Palmer, the victim, in the presence of Rice, her assailant, and handing out an initial punishment that was half of that given to Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker for taking Adderall–both the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens were forced to impose more meaningful sanctions on Rice (suspending him indefinitely and cutting from the team, respectively) after a video of the actual incident from inside the elevator surfaced earlier this week. Not that the “new” video changed anything; at a minimum, the League had videotaped evidence of Rice dragging the unconscious Palmer out of the elevator immediately after the incident. As Zerlina Maxwell noted in Cosmopolitan this past Monday, “the bottom line is that there are not that many different ways in which two people can get on an elevator, only to have one exit unconscious, especially since Rice admitted to hitting Palmer.”

And as much as I’m glad that the League and the Ravens took more definitive action against Rice, let’s be honest. At this point, both organizations are desperately trying to save face. The initial two-game suspension was preposterous with or without the elevator tape, and, in fact, an unnamed law enforcement official told the Associated Press on Thursday that he provided the League a copy of that tape last April. Indeed, as Travis Waldron of Think Progress reported, right after the League announced Rice’s two-game suspension in late July:

[W]ord came that there was another video, one that might show even more. This video reportedly showed Rice punching Palmer and knocking her unconscious before they left the elevator. And according to reports from Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, ESPN’s Chris Mortenson, and others, both the police and the NFL had seen this video too.

In other words, the League’s claim that it never saw the tape of the actual assault seems to be, in technical legal terms, bunk. So, even with Rice now gone from the Ravens, given the League’s and the team’s mishandling of the whole mess–along with Ravens’ fans hearty embrace of the abuser, even after seeing the whole disgusting incident on tape–I’m just not interested in watching the Baltimore Ravens.

Moreover, Rice may be gone … but what about Ben?

If you’re a football fan, you probably know what I’m talking about. Four years ago, a twenty-year-old college student accused Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of rape:

The 20-year-old college student … told Milledgeville, Ga., police the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback followed her into a nightclub bathroom, cornered her and had sex with her after she told him “no” more than once.

Hundreds of pages of police documents regarding the case were released Thursday [April 15, 2010], three days after prosecutors said no charges would be filed against Roethlisberger, who has denied the accusations.

In her statement, the accuser said Roethlisberger encouraged her and her friends to have numerous alcoholic drinks before she was escorted by one of Roethlisberger’s bodyguards – identified by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation as Coraopolis, Pa., police officer Anthony Barravecchio – into a hallway, where Roethlisberger later exposed himself to her.

“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 in her statement. “I went to the first door I saw, which happened to be a bathroom.”

But Roethlisberger followed her in and shut the door, she said.

“I still said no, this is not OK, and he then had sex with me,” she wrote. “He said it was OK. He then left without saying anything.”

It’s true no formal charges were filed against Roethlisberger, but the NFL thought the accusations were serious enough to suspend him for the first four games of the season–an unprecedented decision in the absence of criminal charges. So, that’s disconcerting. But, more importantly, this was the second time Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault: In July 2009 a woman filed suit against him in state court in Nevada alleging that he attacked her during a celebrity golf tournament in 2008. Like the accusations made in 2010, no criminal charges were filed in the 2008 case, and Roethlisberger denied the claims made in the lawsuit.

Obviously, in the absence of formal charges and a guilty plea or a conviction, none of us on the outside can say whether Roethlisberger did, in fact, sexually assault either of the women who’ve leveled those accusations against him. But neither can we say he didn’t–and to assume he’s innocent means we assume the women leveling those charges were lying. And so the question becomes, why? Why assume that either, let alone both, were lying when we don’t make those sorts of assumptions about the victims of other crimes? Why automatically take the word of a highly paid, pampered male professional athlete–one who’s likely had his every wish catered to since he first began to show athletic promise–over the word of two separate women in two separate incidents roughly two years apart?

I’m not sitting on a jury deciding whether the state has proven Roethlisberger guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I’m sitting on my couch deciding whether to watch a football game. So, I’m not willing to assume he’s telling the truth and they’re lying.

Meanwhile, Roethlisberger plays on. After he served his suspension, after Georgia authorities elected not to proceed against him in 2010, after he quietly settled the Nevada lawsuit in 2012, the sports world–the League, his team, the sports media, and, yes, we football fans–collectively shrugged. We collectively pretended, and continue to pretend, that none of this happened, that Roethlisberger is just another football player playing the sport we love.

It’s actually quite sickening, when you think about it. A guy who might have raped not one, but two women, not just getting on with his life but getting rich, getting ever more famous by the year. All because we’d rather just look away.

Well, I’m going to look away–from the Steelers. From the Ravens. From any team that might harbor sexual predators and domestic abusers. And, maybe from the NFL, too, if it doesn’t stop coddling men who are accused of doing these things.

David von Ebers

Dave von Ebers is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (BA ’83, JD ’87), and has practiced business law and litigation in the Chicago metropolitan area for more than a quarter century. After practicing with some of Chicago’s most distinguished law firms, Mr. von Ebers opened his solo practice in Oak Park, Illinois, in 2001. Mr. von Ebers is an established writer and blogger, having written extensively on civil rights, constitutional law, politics, sports and music – and often the intersection of some or all of foregoing – since 2005. Mr. von Ebers joined the award-winning This Week in Blackness team in 2013, and is the co-host of Sportsball with Aaron Rand Freeman and Rachael Parenta.

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