Roethlisberger's Suspension, And Race: What If He Looked Like Pacman?

When news of the Ben Roethlisberger suspension leaked this morning, it sparked debate among co-workers all over the country. Too harsh? Not harsh enough? The SB Nation editors were no different arguing about the punishment amongst ourselves all morning. Namely, what role, if any, does Ben Roethlisberger's race play in all of this? With players like Pac Man Jones having been banished for seasons-at-a-time, is it fair that Ben Roethlisberger could be back on the field by mid-October? To dig deeper, SB Nation editors Spencer Hall and Andrew Sharp exchanged e-mails all morning, debating the racial component in this and other cases of NFL discipline. We encourage you to join the debate in the comments section below.

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Roethlisberger's Suspension, And Race: What If He Looked Like Pacman?

ANDREW SHARP: This morning, after hearing that Ben Roethlisberger's suspension could potentially be just four games, I asked myself a simple question: would Ben have gotten off so easy if he looked like this?


In my mind, if Ben Roethlisberger was a black skill player instead of a white quarterback, he'd have been demonized far more severely by the media, and there's no way he gets off with just a four game suspension. I also recognize that this argument's completely obnoxious and prompts all sorts of broad generalizations on the NFL, but try to ignore all that. This isn't about politics. 

Just a simple question here. If Ben Roethlisberger looked like Pacman Jones, would he have gotten off with four games? Spencer, what do you think?


SPENCER HALL: Well, Pac Man (who looks like Pac Man) got a year for being involved with (though not the trigger man) in a high profile strip club shooting resulting in the paralysis of a bouncer, so the cases here aren't even remotely comparable. Consider that Donte Stallworth actually killed someone in an accident. Consider Leonard Little's status as another "black athlete who totally killed someone while driving a car drunk" who went on to happily collect paychecks in the NFL. Consider the general evenhandedness the NFL has demonstrated with its suspensions for non-conviction cases, and the league comes through this looking fairly clean on any charges of racism. 

They're punishing Roethlisberger for the PR damage, not the degree of criminality contained in the alleged (and mind you, unpursued) charges. You might be able to argue the media might be treating it differently, but as much as I'm convinced the NFL is run by evil tentacled aliens with psychic powers and a thirst for human blood, they're fine here.


ANDREW SHARP: Look, I realize that playing the race card seems like the obvious (and over-simplified) move here. But to understand how this would be different, you have to go back to the original rape accusation, and the way it was framed in the media. ESPN barely mentioned it, and everyone else treaded verrrry lightly in making any assumptions about Roethlisberger as a person. Instead of demonizing a player on the strength of accusations, there was a perception among the media that Roethlisberger was merely "immature" and needed to "get his priorities straight." Would a player like Santonio Holmes, or Pacman Jones, or Jamarcus Russell have been afforded a similar benefit of the doubt?

Pac Man was never convicted of any of the charges he faced, but he was indicted in the media, and therefore suspended and put on probation by the NFL. Thus, when he had another run-in with the law, he was banned from the league for a year.

The incident in Georgia is really Ben's second run-in with a rape accusation, but because the first one was largely ignored by the media, and subsequently, the NFL, there's less a sense of "two strikes" justice here, and he's being punished for his second incident as if it were his first. To me, that boils down to race, and favorable treatment he received from the media early on. Counting the first accusation and two more accusations of sexual assault that weren't pursued (here and here), that's four times Roethlisberger's been accused of some form of sexual assault.

It's hearsay to say that he's guilty of any of it, but my point is... If he were black, it wouldn't matter among the media and the NFL, and we'd be talking about a guy who's a "hazard to society and himself" or some other crap.

Leonard Little's slap on the wrist, as well as other instances of lenient justice from the NFL (Ray Lewis, etc), happened under a different commissioner. Under the omnipotent ginger, the NFL's adopted a much harsher stance, regardless of whether its players have been convicted. Here, though, it's not so harsh. What gives?


SPENCER HALL: I think the nature of the accusation dictated the coverage, not race. In Pac-Man's case it was clear something very, very bad had happened: bullets left behind, witnesses with multiple accounts of Jones' involvement, and ultimately one very paralyzed guy left as a result. Being punished for being associated with that is fair game for the NFL regardless of criminal convictions because they live and die on their ability to act as a sanitary marketing vehicle, and when you contaminate that with blatant strip club shootings, you get the horns from Goodell. 

For both the media and the NFL, accusations of sexual misconduct are trickier. Once might be a shakedown, something that's happened to high-profile NFL players before. (See the case of Erik Williams and Michael Irvin being accused of rape in 1997, charges ultimately proved false.) 

Even a second accusation might have been excused as a repeat attempt had Roethlisberger not put himself in a situation generating a huge police report and damning testimony. Roethlisberger got off without a charge, but showing up in the police report after being caught in public drinking, trying to stop a car with his forehead, and now this was the limit for the NFL's conduct policy tolerance. 

Nowhere in this do I see race, especially since we both admit that's the obvious move, and so does the NFL.  Legal convictions do not matter to the NFL, but first segment appearances of the negative sort on Sportscenter do. This is true regardless of your skin tone, and the prime example for this is the long leash granted Brandon Marshall, who despite multiple run-ins with the police (including the very ugly charge of domestic violence) is now leading a quiet life as a new Miami Dolphin. 

It would be really nice to chalk race into this, but there is zero evidence that race is a factor in either the coverage or the suspensions handed out by the NFL.


ANDREW SHARP: Damnit, I was hoping you wouldn't mention that sexual assault cases are treated more gently by the media. It's true, reasonable from a media perspective, and a completely valid counterpoint. But still misleading.

Because even relative to other sexual assault claims, the lack of coverage with the first instance was pretty appalling. And frankly, one attempt might be a shakedown, and even two. But there are FOUR women on record as having consulted with a lawyer after sexual encounters with Roethlisberger, two of which have been largely ignored by the media.

If it's not race, then how can you explain the lack of attention from the media and NFL? Again, if someone like Jamarcus Russell pulled this stuff, a. the third and fourth incidents reported would become far more prevalent in the media, and b. the outcry would be deafening. Mind you, I'm not calling the NFL racist, here. But I'm saying that if this was Jamarcus Russell, or Pacman, or some other prevalent black star, the whole process would result in a much stiffer penalty.

Even the way he's quoted in the police report would be received different. When Roethlisberger says "All my bitches, take some shots!" we hear an overgrown frat boy. If Pacman says that, we hear a "thug" conforming to all the worst stereotypes of hip hop culture and chauvenism. It's nuanced and not necessarily anyone's fault, but it's impossibly naive to think that a black player could come out of this, his second (or fourth, depending on how we count) rape accusation, without being portrayed as evil, out of control, and unfit to play in the NFL for a long time.

Now, again, it's not to say that anyone's at fault for perpetuating stereotypes that have been ingrained by decades of prejudice (and a fair amount of anecdotal support, with the likes of Pac Man, Chris Henry, Larry Johnson, etc). But if there's a discrepancy between the way a white and black player is held responsible for a given transgression--and an honest look at the situation reveals there is--shouldn't it be the NFL's job to correct that discrepancy?

Especially if Goodell is going to tout his "Zero Tolerance" policy and the NFL's newfound premium on morality, we can't just ignore that Ben Roethlisberger's been accused, multiple times, of the absolute worst kind of crime. And he might be playing football by October?


SPENCER HALL: I think you're underestimating the evil quotient of "an overgrown frat boy" here. And sequentially, those accusations came out after the Georgia case, not before. As for lack of attention, if the lead on Sportscenter and blanket coverage across the blogosphere doesn't qualify as "attention," then attention can't be gotten. Everything you say could be true given the varying coverage given black athletes, but thus far there's been no evidence to show that anyone has decided to board the "Gentle White Rapist" angle. On the whole, Roethlisberger has been jettisoned as a viable spokesperson and representative of the NFL and deemed a handsy creep at best. 

The parallel proving my point is Kobe Bryant, whose own prosecuted case yielded remarkably balanced coverage. In many ways Bryant got a better deal media-wise than Ben: by going to trial, he was able to take short term damage, and then rebuild with the passing of time. Ben's anecdotal conviction may be worse for him because he will never, ever shake this in a court of law, and will forever be the guy detailed in a police report as saying "It's OK" in an alleged sexual assault. 

It's a bizarre sign of progress, but it's there nonetheless.

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