With two sexual assault allegations leveled against him in less than a year's time, albeit with no criminal charges, Ben Roethlisberger's image has been sufficiently destroyed for the general public. A recent survey done by Forbes placed the Steelers quarterback as the third most disliked figure in all of sports, behind only Michael Vick and Al Davis.
The media, however, has problems presenting this narrative. Sure, Roethlisberger is suspended by the league and hated by fans, but in the eyes of the law, he's still not guilty of any significant wrongdoing. In order to demonize him or appeal to the masses who want him demonized, the media needs concrete examples of his wrongdoing. Failing that, they've largely settled for mountains of negative scuttlebutt. After all, something has to be held aloft as evidence of his evil ways.
In presenting the monster for the public's scorn, the mainstream media and the blogosphere have been, in a rare instance, shockingly similar in their approach.
From the mainstream media: following the Georgia investigation, there was an assortment of on-the-scene reports in Pittsburgh spreading anecdotes, anonymous and unverifiable though they may be, about how Roethlisberger has acted crassly or callously, though not exactly illegally, over the past several years. These stories were bundled together in articles as a means of creating a "pattern of negative behavior" as Sports Illustrated did in its attention-grabbing cover story months ago. In one instance, they quoted a guy named "Craig" saying he overheard Roethlisberger making lewd comments to a T.G.I. Friday's waitress weeks before the Milledgeville incident. That's dynamite sourcing, Lou.
The blog world has been just as credulous regarding these stories. Deadspin solicited and ran e-mails from anyone claiming to have had a negative run-in with Roethlisberger, without nary a hint of proof. ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio has made hay on Roethlisberger rumors in recent months, whether it was a later recanted report from a lawyer on a Boston sports talk station about a third alleged sexual assault, a denied story about how Arnold Palmer told off Roethlisberger on a golf course, or just today, a rumor that a woman has threatened to files charges because she saw a man Roethlisberger was playing golf with peeing under a tree on the course.
While Florio is doing what he has always done and done well -- throw any item of even marginal interest against the wall regardless of its veracity -- where he makes himself look foolish is by each step of the way practically advocating for further discipline from the NFL simply because he has caught wind of some barely salacious tidbit. Here, from the golf course peeing post:
So while, for now, it appears that Roethlisberger won't have to whip out the uromysitisis poisoning defense in order to avoid further scrutiny from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Ben may not be out of the woods. Just like the Mike Vick bang-bang birthday party, the incident can attract the kind of scrutiny that potentially leads to information prompting further punishment from Goodell -- or, possibly, a decision not to reduce Roethlisberger's suspension from six games to four.
Equating being the associate of someone who urinates on a golf course and being involved in a club altercation that later results in a shooting is a bit of a reach, to say the least. But it's indicative of how new sports media is dealing with its role after being accepted, not only by its old-guard mainstream counterpart, but by the professional leagues themselves. Some of these sites have seen their content make real waves in the world of sports. Rather than simply let that happen, some want to try to now exercise influence. When they're wrong, that can be a scary thing.
For many readers, the accuracy of any of these individual reports matters less than the overall volume of them. "Where there's smoke, there's fire" is the usual, if troubling, mantra by those who want to resume guilt of the accused. But what if, instead of fire, there's just someone blowing smoke?