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.