By Jeff Pearlman
July 28, 2010

Ben Roethlisberger will begin practicing with the Steelers this week. Therefore, we will cheer.

I know this because we, the sports fanatics of America, cheer for nearly everything. Back in the 1980s, we cheered for Spuds MacKenzie, the beer canine. We cheer for idiots who sprint naked across fields. We cheer for fireworks, even though they can't hear us, and we cheer for men and women dressed as large sausages, even though they are dressed as large sausages.

We cheer for Michael Vick, even after he murdered dogs. We have cheered for Dwight Gooden after each return from drug suspension and Brett Favre after each return from retirement. When he was alive, hapless ol' Yinka Dare was cheered by New Jersey Nets fans merely for being hapless ol' Yinka Dare.

It's what we do. We cheer.

Yet this time ... well, perhaps this time we should think about the whole cheering thing.

Unless you just escaped from the Hagåtña Detention Facility, odds are you've heard that, over the past few years, the Pittsburgh quarterback has twice been accused of sexual assault -- one incident occurred in Lake Tahoe in 2008 and the other earlier this year in Milledgeville, Ga. Though criminal charges were never filed in either case, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell investigated the matter, then decided to suspend Roethlisberger for six games to start the upcoming season. Why? Because examinations into Roethlisberger's behavior (including one by Sports Illustrated last May) tell the story of a bad man.

According to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the National Football League and anyone with any sort of vested interest, Roethlisberger has used the past few months to (Cue: Air Supply's All Out of Love) reflect on his life, to re-evaluate the decisions he has made and to grow as both a person and a professional athlete. Now, with the magic tonic that is time, Big Ben will join a book club that specializes in the work of Jennifer Weiner; he will bake oatmeal cookies with Rachael Ray, cry tiny liquid pedals of love on Oprah's couch, take long walks on the beach and watch A Walk To Remember over and over again.

He will be a new man, and by the time Roethlisberger hits Hines Ward with a deep slant pass in his return to action in October (the suspension can be reduced to four games), Steelers fans will return to wearing his jersey and kissing his feet and begging for autographs.

This is who we are.

This is a shame.

Alcoholism is a disease. Drug addiction is a disease. Taking advantage of women is not a disease. It is who a person is. What's in his makeup. What composes his core. You do not do what Roethlisberger is alleged to have done because you had a bad day, or a bad week, or a depressing injury, or too much to drink. You do it because you are a monster, and the monster somehow believes it is his right.

I'm not sure whether Goodell had any legal choice but to allow Roethlisberger to come back. But you, the fans, do have a choice whether to accept it.

Throughout the decades of watching and covering sports, I have seen too many villains return to inevitable ovations. In 1997, Falcons linebacker Cornelius Bennett pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of sex abuse and was sentenced to 60 days in jail. He spent several more years in the NFL, an unvarnished hero. A year later, Anthony Mason of the Miami Heat was arrested on two counts of third-degree rape of two teenage girls. He pleaded guilty to two counts of endangering the welfare of children -- and was back on the basketball court right away. The examples are endless, as well as depressing. They are almost always coupled with professional sport's most enduring justifying line: "America is all about second chances."

But the reality is there are two sets of rules, one for athletes and celebrities and one for the rest of us. I have worked at approximately 15 places in my life, and I can't think of one (from CVS and Stanley Herz & Company to The Tennessean and Sports Illustrated) that would have given any employee the same opportunity afforded Roethlisberger by the NFL and the Steelers.

In the real world, people with a reputation for assaulting women wind up unemployed and ostracized. They plead for future opportunities, but come to realize the impact of one punch... one kick was significantly greater than the impact of one punch... one kick.

But not in athletics, and certainly not in the NFL.

Ben Roethlisberger is destined to jog back onto the field as a savior and a hero, and before long nobody will remember what happened off the gridiron.

We'll all just cheer.

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