Friday, April 30, 2010

Barbershops, Ben Rothlisberger And Changing Times

Barbershops, Ben Rothlisberger And Changing Times

A few weeks back I was in my barbershop having the kind of demographically rich and entertaining conversation that popular culture now expects to occur in every black barbershop in America. The room was filled with the sounds of laughter and argument as a college professor, UPS delivery man, community college student, bank employee and two barbers all pontificated about life, money, race and of course, sports. Eventually everyone started debating the possible fortunes of Ben Rothlisberger, the embattled quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was investigated by police after two women accused him of rape over the last 18 months.

My barber took bets on how long people believed he would be suspended from football, but the consensus in the room was that because “Big Ben” was a Super Bowl winner, hadn’t been convicted of a crime yet and, most importantly, was white, that he would not suffer the same fate as other athletes such as Michael Vick, Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods. I am pleasantly surprised to see that for once it appears that at least in the case of sexual assault justice has trumped race and money in the eyes of the NFL.

The facts of the story are pretty basic: “Big” Ben Rothlisberger has been the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers for 6 years, and has been very successful on the field and had plenty of problems off of the field. He has won two Super Bowls with the Steelers but has also been accused – not convicted – of rape twice in the last 18 months.

The first case was brought in 2009 by a Lake Tahoe hotel employee, who claims that Rothlisberger called the front desk late at night, asking specifically for her to help him fix a television. The accuser says that after ‘fixing’ his television, Rothlisberger would not let her leave the room and then proceeded to rape her.

The second case came in March of 2010 when a 20-year-old Georgia college student claims that after socializing with the quarterback at several bars he became too aggressive and exposed himself to her. She rejected his ‘advance’ and went to the women’s room to get away from him. He then allegedly followed her into the women’s room and raped her, while his bodyguards, both off duty policemen, stood in front of the door preventing the woman’s friends from finding her.

While both of these stories – and many others circulating around the Web – were damaging enough, what everyone was waiting to see was what punishment “Big Ben” would receive.

In recent years, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has punished many athletes for being involved in situations – regardless of whether they were ever convicted of a crime – because their behavior reflected poorly on the league. Of course, all of those who received heavy suspensions, such as Michael Vick and Adam “Pacman” Jones, were African American. Many, from the guys in my barbershop to the national press, believed that the NFL, like much of the American justice system, was quick to punish black athletes for crimes that white ones would get a free pass for.

That was not the case this time. Goodell handed down a six-week suspension and ordered mandatory counseling. That is the longest suspension of any white player in the NFL for a non-drug related crime in the last 10 years. Fortunately, this suspension and the story that preceded it aren’t just about race.

I believe that the suspension and subsequent public outcry against Rothlisberger is a good sign for society. That perhaps we are turning the corner in our thinking about sexual assault and violence. I find it fitting that in the final weeks of April, which happens to be National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, one of the most prominent sports in America has stood up and said that the implication of sexual violence against women will not be tolerated, regardless of whether it can be proven.

For far too long in this country, women who have been victimized by famous athletes have been dismissed by the press and fans or pressured into not seeking justice. Fans booed Rothlisberger and chants of “She Said NO!” echoed throughout Radio City Music Hall during the NFL Draft last week. While a small step, maybe this means we’re changing as a society. Maybe we are starting to value the lives and sanctity of women’s sexual freedom more, and perhaps for the first time in years a ‘public’ conviction on sexual assault is truly colorblind.

(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in campaigns and elections, pop culture, and the politics of sports. He can be reached at

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