The Five-Cent Redemption of the Sports World

roethlisberger.jpgThe problem with sports reporters–one of them, anyway–is that they see things completely through the perspective of their beat. I’m sure the same is true of all types of reporters; it’s a job where a certain amount of myopia is necessary to do it well. But this becomes a serious problem when the thorny real world pops up in a sports context. Some sportswriters can handle it, but most can’t, at least not without the hammiest of fists.

Witness Phil Taylor in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated. The Steelers lost the Super Bowl, and this made him very happy, because Ben Roethlisberger deserved to lose thanks to his accusations of sexual assault.

[T]he path to forgiveness for Roethlisberger requires more than leading a crisp two-minute drill. “Seems like some people want Ben to walk across a bed of nails before they’ll cut him any slack,” says Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward. Now, there’s a thought. But in the absence of that kind of pain, seeing Big Ben in the professional agony that comes with losing the Super Bowl will have to do. Apologies for boorish behavior and promises to be a better man can be coached and choreographed. The kind of hurt Roethlisberger expressed after the loss in Dallas cannot.

“I feel like I let people down,” he said after the game, in which he
threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns but also tossed two critical interceptions. “I feel like I let the city of Pittsburgh down, the fans, the coaches, my teammates.”

Good. Let it bleed. He went on to rattle off the names of teammates who had played through injuries, lineman Chris
Kemoeatu, wide receivers Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders among them. “It’s even more disappointing for me because I let a lot of people down who showed up today to fight,” he said.
Even better. [all emphasis Taylor’s]

Aside from the fact that Taylor really pours on his wishes for pain (Good. Let it bleed.), I find this kind of piece troubling for a larger reason. We’re talking about something awful that (allegedly) happened outside the playing field. How is losing a Super Bowl any sort of “payback”? The guy’s lost football games before. I’m sure he’ll get over it. In pure karmic terms, if Roethlisberger is guilty, the scales would only be balanced when he himself had to endure some unwanted sexual advances from doofy-looking hairy dudes.

By saying that the Steelers loss was just desserts for Roethlisberger, you are in essence saying that losing the Super Bowl = sexual assault. By my own moral calculus, that doesn’t add up.

Also, Roethlisberger has already won the Lombardi Trophy twice. So does this mean God/karma/The Universe is okay with suspected rapists earning two championships, but three is just beyond the pale?

The same kinds of things were written about Michael Vick this year. He was redeeming himself on the football field, said an upsettingly large number of writers. Some thrilling comebacks and electric performances were good enough to make up for killing dozens of living things, apparently. Then, when he laid an egg in the first round of the playoffs, he suddenly still had a lot to prove about himself. The implication: If the Eagles had gone all the way, he would have become a decent human being.

You can think whatever you want about Vick. He’s actually served time in prison for his crimes, so if you believe that’s sufficient to pay for what he did, you’re entitled to that opinion. But if you think he still has a lot to answer for, the idea that he could compensate for his crimes by being really good at football is at best naive, at worst disturbing.

In the world of a sportswriter, any human failing can be redeemed with on-field heroics, even failings as heinous as Vick’s and Roethlisberger’s. Because that’s all they know. They eat, breathe, and sleep sports, so everything about The World must be interpreted through this lens.

Sports are not alone in this regard. Some people think Roman Polanski’s films excuse him drugging and raping a 13 year old. If Charlie Sheen somehow ever won an Oscar, I’m sure we’d hear “redemption” stories about him, too.

And to be fair, it’s not just professional sportswriters who do this. I saw plenty of ordinary fans tweeting throughout the Super Bowl with harsh words for Roethlisberger, delighting in his interceptions and poor first-half performance, suggesting this was karmic redemption–while also making an endless series of rape jokes, indicating they’d completely missed the point of disliking Roethlisberger in the first place.

Regardless of subject, I find it morally suspect at best. Forgiveness can not truly be achieved without some measure of empathy for those you victimized. It can only come after some long, dark night of the soul where you face yourself and come to grips with what you’ve done. It does not involve throwing perfect spirals or breaking free of a few tackles and scrambling for a first down.

If you want to believe the likes of Vick and Roethlisberger are not in need of redemption, that’s up to you. But if you think they still have much to answer for, you can’t also think that answering can be done on a sports context. Because if that’s true, let’s just give prisoners footballs and see which ones play the best, so we can determine which are most deserving of parole. It’s equally as fair and makes about as much sense.