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With 5,000-plus members of the media in Dallas for Sunday’s Super Bowl, there is no question the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger will have a lot to answer to.
Whether he responds to zingers about allegations of sexual assault remains to be seen. At a meet and greet Monday, Roethlisberger dodged a few vaguely personal questions, writing them off as “reflective questions, and the time for the reflection is after the year.” Tuesday’s media day called for similar responses.
Win or lose, Roethlisberger will have plenty to mull over. The 28-year-old was forced by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to sit out the first four games of the season due to a suspension stemming from a woman’s claims that he forced her to have sex in a bathroom in a Georgia bar. Roethlisberger was initially handed a six-game penalty after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant criminal charges. But it was later reduced due to signs of improved off-field behavior.
While professional athletes — men and women — have been kicking back and occasionally keeling over in bars for decades, their antics are more likely than ever to be captured by cell-phone-camera-snapping fans. But a bender gone bad can put a serious dent in an athlete’s endorsement deals and earning potential.
“For Ben Roethlisberger as a brand, the best thing he can do this week is have a quiet week off the field and a very loud week on the field. In the short term, he can’t do anything to help himself, but he can do further damage,” said Kevin Adler of Engage Marketing, a Chicago firm that advises companies about endorsement deals. “He can go out and throw 100 touchdowns Sunday, and he will still be a damaged brand from a marketing perspective. In the short term, he won’t see a windfall of endorsement deals, but if he has a great game and a quiet off-season, that may begin to change.”
Roethlisberger’s headline-making ways have affected his Q rating, which as of last September was 14 percent, one point below the athlete average of 15 percent and well below his peak score of 22 percent. The Steelers star, whose name registered with 47 percent of respondents, had a negative Q rating of 38 percent, compared to the athlete’s average of 24 percent. Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Q Score Co., said, “He hasn’t addressed the public or offered any explanation about how he feels about this. What we’ve seen over the years is when an athlete doesn’t address the public pretty shortly after anything socially perverse, that could have very negative impact on their image.”
On average there are nearly 100 professional athletes who face sexual assault or criminal charges, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Founder Richard Lapchick said, “Even if that is underreported by tenfold, we have to keep in mind that 4.5 million women are battered each year and nearly 1 million are raped. Men are the problem here, and not athletes. They are part of the problem.”
Known as the “social conscience of sport,” Lapchick, whose father, Joe, played for the Boston Celtics and later coached St. John’s and the New York Knicks, said of Roethlisberger, “I think he has to stand up and answer questions. His press conference remarks have been offensive, especially when he said ‘the last thing on’ his mind was working to win back the fans and the city of Pittsburgh.”
The quarterback can wave off questions about the allegations, since Georgia authorities never prosecuted him, said sportswriter and NPR commentator Frank Deford. “The answer I wouldn’t accept is, ‘I’m here to talk about football.’ At the Super Bowl, players are asked all kinds of questions.…Lance Armstrong has been asked about drugs for the last 15 years, but two weeks ago new allegations came out. Armstrong is obligated to at least deny the new allegations,” Deford said.
Roethlisberger was fresh out of Miami University in his home state of Ohio when he inked his first endorsement deal for Big Ben Beef Jerky with Pittsburgh-based PLB Sports. President Ty Ballou said Tuesday that he liked his homegrown story and his Steelers status meant an automatic “ravenous” fan base. But the 241-pound quarterback got the ax from PLB after last year’s allegations. Having worked with 75 athletes in its 15-year history, this was the first time the moral clause in a contract had been used to end a deal.
“This last issue stepped over the line. It was also the culmination of other things that were hurting the brand,” Ballou said. “Some people will never forgive him, but he could do a lot of good. The stuff he does from here will be the benchmark.”
Roethlisberger by no means stands alone in the wide world of sports’ sexual scandals — real or imagined. Tiger Woods, Brett Favre, Kobe Bryant, Rick Pitino and Rex Ryan have earned their share of ink for postgame antics. Even though Woods’ much-publicized marital woes cost him a few endorsement deals, he still landed top honors in the 2010 Bloomberg Businessweek Power 100, a list that ranks the most powerful athletes on and off the field. Roethlisberger wound up 54th, with $10.3 million in earnings, thanks in part to deals with Nike and Dick’s Sporting Goods. A Nike spokesman and a Dick’s Sporting Goods spokeswoman declined to comment about how their respective brands dealt with the allegations against the NFL star.
High-profile attorney Gloria Allred, who represented one of Woods’ mistresses, Rachel Uchitel, said, “A lot of media people are definitely starstruck. What they care about is getting the next interview and the next one and the one after that. They have to restrict their journalistic instincts and responsibilities in order to get the story. There have been so many changes in journalism. In many cases, you can’t even call it journalism. The celebrity press has become so dominant. Often women are the ones who get overlooked.”
Well aware of the quarterback’s earning potential, Allred said, “The more positive the spin, the more likely it will yield profitable sponsorship deals. It’s all about damage control. It will be interesting to see who wins — the press or the star.”
As Sunday’s big game, which is expected to be viewed worldwide by about one billion people, nears, Roethlisberger will have sit-down interviews with ESPN and Fox, and press conferences with less-athletically inclined outlets such as “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood.” He and his rival, the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, will have the same number of interviews, an NFL spokesman said.
USA Today sportswriter Christine Brennan, who will be on assignment elsewhere Sunday, said, “If journalists ask him about it, it’s not as though they would be dredging up something that happened 20 years ago. We are talking about something that influenced Ben Roethlisberger’s season this year.”
The fact that he managed to bring his team to the Super Bowl despite the four-game suspension calls for further questions. “It’s not just a matter of asking him what happened, though it is completely journalistically sound to ask him about all that, there are other questions. How did he come back? What did he do during the suspension? How does he look back at the suspension now? What did he learn?” Brennan said. “These are very valid questions that I hope the journalists who will be there will ask.”
Asked if the bearded, hoodie-wearing Roethlisberger should step up his appearance, Tommy Hilfiger said, “I think that doesn’t matter in this day and age. When you look at quarterbacks, they each have their own look. [Tom] Brady has his look and Favre has his.”
While not up to speed about the specific allegations, Hilfiger said, “Distraction at this point in the season would affect anyone. I could tell you Michael Vick was possibly distracted, and I think Kobe [Bryant] was. I think pro athletes have to keep their focus.”
Roethlisberger’s former high school coach, Cliff Hite, said Monday, “Ben went through some tough times with that off-field incident that got him into trouble. What he discovered is that off-the-field behavior counts as much as on-the-field behavior. But he is getting it right now. The image thing is going to be something he has to rebuild.”
But Hite, a newly minted state senator in Ohio, isn’t about to dole out fashion advice. “I played football in the mid-Seventies, and our travel uniforms were pretty outlandish. We wore platform shoes, bell-bottom pants and had long hair coming out of the backs of our helmets,” he said. “As a coach, I would just leave it up to the kids. I would tell them, ‘You represent our team, so you figure it out.’ ”