Wise: Take a pass on tale of re­demp­tion.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - MIKE WISE wisem@wash­post.com

Seven days be­fore the Su­per Bowl, Ben Roeth­lis­berger is fright­en­ingly mor­ph­ing into Ben Re­demp­tion.

He is be­ing hailed in some quar­ters for his abil­ity to over­come ne­far­i­ous per­cep­tions about his char­ac­ter, to over­come his made-up-their-minds de­trac­tors, the peo­ple who want to bring him down like the New York Jets wished they could a week ago.

But Big Ben has only one per­son to over­come if he wants to change how peo­ple view him: Ben Roeth­lis­berger.

He’s the one who bought kids al­co­hol last sum­mer, walked into a night­club bath­room in Milledgeville, Ga., with a sauced young woman and left it to po­lice to de­cide what re­ally hap­pened be­hind closed doors af­ter she cried rape.

Though charges were never brought against him, those neg­a­tive per­cep­tions were not in­vented; he cre­ated them. He’s the one who was sued in civil court by a woman in Ne­vada who claimed she was sex­u­ally as­saulted.

NFL Com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell must have found some­thing in those po­lice re­ports that made him sus­pend Roeth­lis­berger for six games, be­fore he re­duced the sus­pen­sion to four, no? That it might have been more than merely a hor­ren­dous lack of judg­ment.

And now that Roeth­lis­berger has the Steel­ers back in the Su­per Bowl, his tar­nished im­age al­most bizarrely has a chance to be mirac­u­lously re­fur­bished.

But that’s where Big Ben gets off the hook, be­cause it’s our fault for be­liev­ing that how well star ath­letes do their jobs some­how equates to the per­son they are off the field.

See, your past counts only so long in sports— un­til you use your ath­letic abil­ity to ob­fus­cate what you did wrong. En route to be­ing great again, by as­so­ci­a­tion you are some­how seen as a good per­son.

Look, Roeth­lis­berger might have made changes in his per­sonal life for the bet­ter. But we don’t know. Fur­ther, how can a per­son’s suc­cess on the field come mod­er­ately close to telling us?

One of the big mis­takes made in Jan­uary 2001 was call­ing Ray Lewis’s story a tale of re­demp­tion, a mere year af­ter he was ar­rested in a dou­ble murder and even­tu­ally pleaded guilty to ob­struc­tion of jus­tice.

He was merely a man who used the field as a sanc­tu­ary dur­ing the most try­ing year of his life, a year that in­cred­i­bly cul­mi­nated with him be­ing named Su­per Bowl MVP. He got the job done. That’s it.

Changed per­son? Now, yes. Af­ter a decade of char­i­ta­ble en­deav­ors in Bal­ti­more and a sin­cere ef­fort made to cut ties with his for­mer friends, Lewis has changed. But in 2001, it was too early to tell.

But just as with Big Ben now, it didn’t mat­ter then: To some, Lewis be­came a good guy be­cause he was a great foot­ball player.

Bot­tom line, when play­ers win for our teams we find rea­sons to like them— even the ones we thought of as ir­re­deemable.

In fewer than two years, La­trell Sprewell went from a vi­o­lent mal­con­tent who choked his coach to the toast of New York. Why did we get sucked in? He led the Knicks to the NBA Fi­nals. Win­ning, then, be­came the great de­odor­ant for his is­sues that had noth­ing to do with bas­ket­ball.

“ The prob­lem all along had been the char­ac­ter-anal­y­sis game,” David Rem­nick ob­served in the New Yorker at the time. “Like it or not, good­ness is a bonus, not a re­quire­ment, for play­ing ball. It was al­ways thus: Ted Wil­liams could be abu­sive of his fans, and even the sainted [Joe] DiMag­gio was, at times, un­saintly.”

But, Rem­nick con­cluded, “win­ning made ‘good guys’ of the ‘ bad guys.’ In sports it usu­ally does.”

In­deed, Allen Iver­son, pre-2001, was the trou­bled knuck­le­head who couldn’t get rid of those lousy friends from Hampton Roads who kept hold­ing him back. But in his MVP sea­son in Philadel­phia, the year A.I. led the 76ers to the NBA Fi­nals against the heav­ily fa­vored Lak­ers of Shaq and Kobe, he sud­denly emerged as a tale of heart, char­ac­ter and re­demp­tion.

We didn’t know if Iver­son had stopped feud­ing with his coach and mak­ing bad de­ci­sions off the court. But the as­sump­tion was: Iver­son is win­ning now; he must get it.

Our warped logic fol­lows that good peo­ple go to the NBA Fi­nals and the Su­per Bowl; bad seeds are beaten soundly, in­jured or, worse, never mat­ter again.

What if Michael Vick never elec­tri­fied a sta­dium again af­ter his 19-month stay in prison for run­ning a dog­fight­ing op­er­a­tion? What if he had never gone from a fed­eral pen­i­ten­tiary in Leavenworth fewer than two years ago to the Pro Bowl this week in Honolulu?

In­stead, imag­ine if he be­came a dot­ing fa­ther and an as­sis­tant shift man­ager at your lo­cal Ap­ple­bee’s— vol­un­teer­ing his time to abused-an­i­mal shel­ters, speak­ing with chil­dren about the dangers to an­i­mal cru­elty. Would he be viewed as a re­demp­tive fig­ure? Would the owner of that par­tic­u­lar Ap­ple­bee’s be tak­ing the pres­i­dent’s call to con­grat­u­late him for giv­ing Vick a sec­ond chance?

Why not? He turned his life around. He re­al­ized the pain he caused.

Oh, but he wasn’t fa­mous for play­ing sports any­more. We should have known his re­demp­tion would only travel as far as he could throw a spi­ral on Sun­day.

Roeth­lis­berger has now taken the ba­ton from Vick. Like Vick, Big Ben has elicited po­lar­ized feel­ings over how much a pro­fes­sional re­demp­tion equals a per­sonal re­demp­tion.

“In ev­ery as­pect of life, there’s all kinds of peo­ple that fall off,” Dan Le­bowitz, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Northeastern’s Cen­ter for the Study of Sport in So­ci­ety, told the Bos­ton Globe this past Novem­ber. “It’s how they re­turn, the re­spon­si­bil­ity, the ac­cept­ing, the ac­count­abil­ity, that they see as their own that al­lows peo­ple to be com­pas­sion­ate and al­lows for re­demp­tion.’’

It would be good and right for the peo­ple who equate do­ing well at work with do­ing well in life to re­flect on that for a moment and re­al­ize Ben Roeth­lis­berger quar­ter­back­ing Pitts­burgh to his third Su­per Bowl has noth­ing to do with whether he’s a changed man.

Ben Roeth­lis­berger, cen­ter, is go­ing to his third Su­per Bowl but that doesn’t atone for his past mis­takes asMichael Vick, clock­wise from top left, Ray Lewis, La­trell Sprewell and Allen Iver­son all learned.

ROETH­LIS­BERGER PHOTO: NICK LAHAM/GETTY IM­AGES; OTHER PHO­TOS BY GETTY IM­AGES AND AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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