Friday, October 15th, 2010

Know Your Rights

If he eats a deli tray is it cannibalism?At first gloss, there are maybe two things that Ben Roethlisberger and Ernesto Miranda have in common. Roethlisberger is very rich, very famous, a two-time Super Bowl champion and was regarded, until a series of recent sexual assault charges fouled up what had become a very lucrative persona, as a prize example of the dull virtue of Ohio high school football – a big, unflappable, rocket-for-an-arm, all-beef archetype who could pull off remedial self-effacement in interviews and deliver a few lines in a television commercial. Roethlisberger is the fourth highest-paid player in the NFL, and he also looks like a boiled ham that has somehow acquired the ability to think highly of itself. That's about what you need to know about Ben Roethlisberger.

Ernesto Miranda, on the other hand, was broke most of his life and could in just about every way have emerged, Freddy Krueger-style, from the bigoted, blaze-orange unconscious of leatherette Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. An Arizona-born – okay, that part fucks up Brewer's narrative – career criminal, Miranda received a dishonorable discharge from the Army, drifted through Texas and later did federal time in the implausibly literary-sounding locales of Chillicothe, Ohio and Lompoc, California. The two things that Miranda and Roethlisberger have in common are a general ambient infamy and a place in the history books.

Roethlisberger is there because, in 2004, he became the youngest quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl. Miranda, for his part, is the reason why – had the Milledgeville, Georgia police arrested Roethlisberger on suspicion of sexual assault charges back in March of 2010, instead of posing for photos with him – the two-time Super Bowl champion would've been read his rights. It's tempting to say that Roethlisberger and Miranda also have in common a predilection for coerced sex. But we can't say that, really. Miranda's 1963 conviction on rape charges in Phoenix was eventually set aside because… well, you know. And while Roethlisberger has been accused of sexual assault by two different women in the past 15 months, no criminal charges have ever been filed against him. So you could say that both Miranda and Roethlisberger should be presumed innocent, as they have never been proven guilty.

You don't get to pick your martyrs on things like this. Miranda, who was stabbed to death in a dispute over a card game in Phoenix back in 1976, was a thoroughgoing butthead for seemingly his entire life, but the Miranda Warning is a popular and iconic component of America's criminal justice system. (Well, popular among most actual citizens – the Roberts Court, as Slate's Dahlia Lithwick has written, has hand-picked cases involving sub-Miranda human nightmares in an attempt to chip away at the law.) Roethlisberger… well, I should probably stop comparing Ben Roethlisberger to Ernesto Miranda. But here's why I did it in the first place: despite never being charged, let alone convicted, of any crime, Roethlisberger spent the first four weeks of this NFL season serving what was originally a six-game league suspension handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

"My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor," the commissioner wrote when he suspended Roethlisberger. "That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans." So there's that, and then there's the not-picking-your-martyrs thing again.

There's a reason why Goodell can do things like issue seemingly arbitrary suspensions and then, if he deems fit, reduce them. (There's a hilarious bit of Wiki-trolling on Goodell's page that I don't want to spoil, but you should really find the hyperlinked words "personal conduct guidelines" and click them.) The NFL Player's Association collectively bargained away its right to protest such decisions and allowed the league to rewrite the personal conduct policy to make it both more onerous and more amorphous, effectively giving Goodell the right to issue punishments of his choosing to players who violate an exceptionally opaque personal conduct policy. In exchange for that gesture of good faith (um?), NFL owners have proposed that the league set aside 18% less revenue for player salaries in the next collective bargaining agreement, despite record profits. They made that demand because they're NFL owners and know no other way to be, but they did so secure in the same knowledge that insulates Goodell – no one in the NFL media is inclined to call bullshit on any of this.

That the authority-worshipping NFL media has treated Goodell to a vigorous and long-running rubdown isn't surprising, necessarily – these are the same guys who insist on hymning loathsome rage-manatee Bill Parcells as a leader of men and subject home viewers to Jerry Jones's alarmingly taut visage several dozen times per broadcast. Admittedly, it's easy to think of greater human rights disgraces in the world than a lack of due process for the Jager-bombed clot of rapey deli meat that is Ben Roethlisberger. When enough witnesses describe a large, hugely wasted professional athlete following a 20-year-old woman into a bathroom with peen akimbo, I'm inclined to leave the principled indignance to professional civil libertarians and drill down on coming up with new ways to deride said wasted athlete. From each according to his ability and all that. But one doesn't need to defend Roethlisberger – or like him, at all – to realize that there's something sort of rotten happening here.

Roethlisberger represents a lot of things, some more flattering than others. Aesthetically, he's something like the present-day apex of a certain model of quarterback – of the same demographic as the blue-collar Mitteleuropean-Midwestern gunslinger archetype, but a bit more fun to watch out of the pocket and, thus far in his career at least, impressively impervious to big-game pressure. Personally, though, Roethlisberger shows all indications of being an entitled, stone-stupid, epic scale booze-boner. By all accounts a pretty bad guy, in short, but – like Miranda – a disconcertingly good test case for the limits of authority.

The other players to have received long personal-conduct suspensions from Roger Goodell aren't much more likable – Tank Johnson, DWI hobbyist and owner of a Branch Davidian-esque cache of unlicensed automatic weapons; Pacman Jones and his Zelig-like knack for being near heartbreakingly arbitrary incidences of strip club-based violence; Michael Vick, who is Michael Vick. All of them charged with crimes, all of them suspended by Goodell, all later reinstated amid the desultory trolling of daily newspaper columnists eager to see the tough-on-crime commissioner they've nicknamed Big Red (seriously) get still tougher. It has played, at times, like a suit-clad take on ESPN's late, unlamented Sunday Night "Jacked Up" highlight segment – in which Stuart Scott clumsily slanged his way through the lighter side of helmet-to-helmet hits – only rewritten for the people who leave comments at the Wall Street Journal's opinion page.

There are exceptions to this, of course – Ray Ratto, the great San Francisco Chronicle columnist who also writes for CBS Sports, neatly unpacked the interlocking uglinesses of the whole affair back in April. But in a football discourse that deals almost exclusively in violent certainties and crude power, the commissioner's mandate to protect the NFL's brand from the players who comprise the actual NFL doesn't get the criticism it deserves. In part, this is because no one wants to defend Ben Roethlisberger, staggering disgracefully, ween out, in the direction of something very terrible. I certainly don't want to defend him – if you're just joining us, I want to compare him to a goateed olive loaf – but I also take no joy in seeing the imperatives of brand management supersede even the appearance of due process in his case. It may make sportswriters feel sophisticated to talk about brands and messaging – in the same way that it presumably makes optic-obsessed political writer-types like Matt Bai feel like something other than cheapjack soothsayers – but it's a terribly insufficient way to describe goings-on involving actual human beings. And, of course, it's a pretty weak way to avoid talking about things – from the crudest behavior to the crudest applications of power – that make us uncomfortable.

Yeah, I just wrote all that on the week of the "Pics of Brett Favre's Penis" story. I don't know, either. But as you're about to be reminded, my decisions generally deserve a pretty vigorous questioning. The good news would be that I finally defeated the coin last week, five weeks into the NFL season. The bad news would be that both I and the coin picked poorly even by the standards of inanimate objects. Again, I don't know what to tell you. Sorry? Bet the coin? The limping, Zombie Saints look weirdly terrible? Anyway, as per usual: coin flips by Garey G. Ris, lines by, incorrect picks courtesy of my own over-thinking brain-piece.

Week 4 (and overall): David Roth: 5-9 (28-45-3); Al Toonie The Lucky Canadian Two-Dollar Coin: 4-10 (39-34-3)

Sunday, October 17
• San Diego Chargers (-8.5) at St. Louis Rams, 1pm – DR: San Diego; ATTLCTDC: St. Louis
• Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans (-4.5), 1pm – DR: Kansas City; ATTLCTDC: Houston
• Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots (-3), 1pm – DR: Baltimore; ATTLCTDC: New England
• Miami Dolphins at Green Bay Packers (Off), 1pm – DR: Miami; ATTLCTDC: Miami
• New Orleans Saints (-4.5) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1pm – DR: New Orleans; ATTLCTDC: Tampa Bay
• Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles (-3), 1pm – DR: Atlanta; ATTLCTDC: Atlanta
• Detroit Lions at New York Giants (-10), 1pm – DR: New Jersey G; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey G
• Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers (-13.5), 1pm – DR: Pittsburgh; ATTLCTDC: Cleveland
• Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears (-6.5), 1pm – DR: Chicago; ATTLCTDC: Chicago
• New York Jets (-3) at Denver Broncos, 4:05pm – DR: New Jersey J; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey J
• Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings (-1.5), 4:15pm – DR: Minnesota; ATTLCTDC: Minnesota
• Oakland Raiders at San Francisco 49ers (-6.5), 4:15pm – DR: San Francisco; ATTLCTDC: Oakland
• Indianapolis Colts (-3) at Washington Redskins, 8:20pm – DR: Indianapolis; ATTLCTDC: Washington

Monday, October 18
• Tennessee Titans (-3) at Jacksonville Jaguars, 8:30pm – DR: Tennessee; ATTLCTDC: Tennessee

David Roth is a writer from New Jersey who lives in New York. He co-writes the Wall Street Journal's Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can't Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. His favorite Van Halen song is "Hot For Teacher."

Photo by Ken Lund, from Flickr.

18 Comments / Post A Comment

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

This is a characteristically nuanced and thoughtful piece, but I was a little disappointed by the way you left things hanging. It's certainly valid to point out the problems with the NFL's personal conduct policy, and it's definitely valid to not want to defend Rothlisberger, but I was left wondering if you believe he should have been suspended at all. I feel silly using terms like "policy prescription" in a comment about an NFL column, but how would you like to have seen Goodell proceed in this case?

David Roth (#4,429)

1) Thanks, 2) Ugh. Or… I probably owe you more than that.

I hoped that my disapproval of the suspension was implied in the text, but I didn't come out and say it in large part because, honestly, who wants to say that shit? But the short answer is, no, I don't think Roethlisberger should've been suspended. The longer answer, though, is that I pretty much hate that answer, and feel like I read enough about the incident to make a pretty good case both that Roethlisberger is a lout and quite probably guilty of something really bad. But I'm disinclined to go tossing my badge in a puddle, Dirty Harry-style, over this one — even if Goodell was in some sense correct in disciplining Roethlisberger, giving the commissioner all kinds of vaguely defined powers to do things like that (and then cheering him for doing so) strikes me as more profoundly wrong. The Gene Upshaw-led NFLPA was one of the great disgraces of the last few decades in sports, but that particular capitulation smells especially bad to me.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Do you think Goodell's hand was particularly strong in Rothlisberger's case because there were no criminal charges filed against him? NFL writers may, in many cases, be craven weenies suckling at the power teat, but I can imagine there was a legitimate desire on the part of a lot of them, and their readers, to see some measure of justice done. If we're all certain that Rothlisberger is "quite probably guilty of something really bad", then a suspension from the league was pretty much the last chance for someone to say "you can't get away with shit like this."

I don't mean to dump too much on your larger point, which I agree with, but without Gooddell's suspension, where's the consequences for what Rothlisberger did?

David Roth (#4,429)

Well, this in a nutshell is why everyone kind of hates the ACLU, right?

Because justice is for the courts (or, eventually, Mike Singletary's Awesome Deity) to deliver, and an ad hoc version of that is essentially vigilantism, right or wrong. Goodell was acting within the latitude afforded him by the (awful) CBA language, which I suppose absolves him somewhat, but I'm still not comfortable with that particular latitude. This right here, from the NFL memo I linked above — "We must conduct ourselves in a way that 'is responsible, that promotes the values upon which the league is based'" — is just not a good look. What are those values? Who decides them? You see where I'm headed with this — as satisfying as it is to be able to say "you can't get away with this" and see that thing not-be-gotten-away-with, there are only so many people who should get to say that, and there needs to be a hard-and-fast standard for proof. The state has a monopoly on that, and I'm frankly cool with it.

So here's what I would've preferred — the Steelers benching Roethlisberger on their own. Well, that or if the cops in Georgia had taken a break from being starstruck chuckleheads and actually done their freaking jobs. Either would work, honestly.

Graydon Gordian (#3,206)

"loathsome rage-manatee Bill Parcells"

The art of comparing NFL coaches/GMs to aquatic mammals is a subtle one, but David, you have mastered it.

Bittersweet (#765)

YES. Calling Roethlisberger a "goateed olive loaf" was just the icing on the cake after that one.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Now I kind of want to start following sports a bit, in order to be able to follow this marvelous author a little better.

Vastly agreed re: "rage-manatee". I can't decide whether that or "Jager-bombed clot of rapey deli meat" is my favorite. The former compels with white-hot brevity, but then, the rococo splendor of the latter!

lawyergay (#220)

I don't know dick about football or sports or any of that straight male shit, but I love this sentence:

"Roethlisberger is very rich, very famous, a two-time Super Bowl champion and was regarded, until a series of recent sexual assault charges fouled up what had become a very lucrative persona, as a prize example of the dull virtue of Ohio high school football – a big, unflappable, rocket-for-an-arm, all-beef archetype who could pull off remedial self-effacement in interviews and deliver a few lines in a television commercial."

This is why I read TheAwl.

pcnut (#7,811)

For Week 5, (not 4), I have you at 6-8 and Al Toonie at 5-9.

David Roth (#4,429)

Really? I'm going to assume you've got us both as right on the San Francisco game — I thought I had that one right on Sunday, but the line was 3.5 and the final spread was 3. Email me if you're sure you're right, though, I'd love the extra win (and don't begrudge it to Toonie, either).

pcnut (#7,811)

You picked Philadelphia, and the favorite was San Francisco (-3.5).

I'm new here. I don't know how to find your email address.

David Roth (#4,429)

It's not your fault, I just realized my email isn't in my lil' bio. But thanks for checking my work. Next week's tally will reflect the corrected totals (and the correct week, too, I hope), and will hopefully also have my email in it.

pcnut (#7,811)

I confess that I just now got around to reading the column. From Goodell's sentencing remarks, it sounds like Roethlisberger's crime was Tarnishing the Brand.

Alec Cumming (#7,979)

For somebody who knows little more about football than that it's played with the pointy brown ball, I really love reading these every week. "Barf monsters" is still my all-time favorite.

jamboree (#206)

"with peen akimbo"? His dick was out, sure, but that's not what akimbo means. Even if you're using it in the video game sense, it's still off; presumably he wasn't dual wielding. Hate to nitpick, but you got me all excited (…) about learning some new penis gesture.

barnhouse (#1,326)

You are right (said peen would have to have had its hands on its hips) but still, it sounds so GREAT I didn't care.

David Roth (#4,429)

Fair usage points, both of youse. But do you know where said peen had its hands? WERE YOU THERE?

barnhouse (#1,326)


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