By Ann Killion
January 28, 2011

What's the prism through which you view sports?

The prism of team colors and city name?

The singular filter of athletic achievement?

A window on human interest, finding athletes you feel you can truly root for?

It's an interesting exploration. Why does one city cheer for its own accused steroid cheat yet degrade an accused visitor? Why do some stay loyal to a team even after it has moved and turned its back on its fan base? Why can you hate one player when he plays across the country and adore him as soon as he signs with your team?

And why does a person's vile behavior off the field become less relevant the more his team wins?

That brings us to Ben Roethlisberger, who is leading the Pittsburgh Steelers into the Super Bowl for the third time in his seven-year career. Roethlisberger is being lauded, standard procedure at this time of year for conference championship-winning quarterbacks.

We're hearing about the obstacles he has overcome, his resilience, his redemption.

And it's making some of us more than a tad nauseous.

In case you've forgotten, or would like to gloss it over lest it dampen your guacamole-and-chips plans, Roethlisberger was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year old college student.

It's not like this is ancient history, when Roethlisberger was some foolish kid. It happened less than 11 months ago, in Milledgeville, Ga., when Roethlisberger was a 28-year old, two-time Super Bowl winner, who had been accused of rape just 20 months earlier in Nevada.

And while no charges were filed in either case, a look at the Milledgeville police report, physical evidence and an investigative story by Sports Illustrated leaves no doubt that something awfully repellent happened that night in Georgia.

The D.A. overseeing Milledgeville (population 18,000) opted not to file charges against Roethlisberger. And the accuser asked to drop charges because, according to her lawyer, "it would be a very intrusive personal experience" for her; the young woman's reputation was already in the process of being trashed.

OK. But that doesn't mean that something sordid and perhaps criminal didn't take place. The D.A. decided there wasn't enough evidence for an open-and-shut case: the operative word there is enough. The bar in Georgia is quite high in sexual assault cases. And nationally, superstar athletes -- superstar white athletes in particular -- have been given the legal and societal benefit of the doubt forever.

The justice system of the NFL worked more quickly. Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for more than a third of the regular season (and as a result caused him to lose several million dollars of salary), later reducing the suspension from six to four games after Roethlisberger underwent a "comprehensive behavioral evaluation."

Goodell wrote to Roethlisberger that while he recognized that "the allegations in Georgia were disputed and that they did not result in criminal charges being filed against you," his ruling was because "you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans."

Since last spring, much of the conversation surrounding the incident is the same deafening, reactive noise that always surrounds these types of accusation in the sports world: that it is simply he said, she said. The young woman is painted in terms of being a gold-digger or a drunken slut.

My personal observation after several years in the sports world is that grown men tend to be more infatuated with pro athletes than young women are, going to great lengths to protect, excuse and enable them.

Roethlisberger had a posse of the infatuated men: pals and off-duty police officers acting as bodyguards, who set up and enabled the encounter with the young woman. He also wasn't questioned immediately by police. One police officer later resigned after his unprofessional conduct in the case became public.

In the months since, the Roethlisberger incident has been casually spoken about in the same breath as the harassment of a female television personality in the Jets locker room and the sexting accusations surrounding Brett Favre. To be clear, sexual harassment shouldn't ever be excused. But neither should it be confused with sexual assault.

The outrage surrounding Michael Vick continues to be expressed at a higher volume than any talk about the Roethlisberger case. Yet Vick served almost two years in prison for his crimes, paid his dues to society (it should be noted that Vick was tried and convicted and Roethlisberger was not).

Resilient? That may be the Steelers, who had to play four games without their starting quarterback and went 3-1, but I don't know that it is a useful descriptor of Roethlisberger. A changed man? Who knows, but certainly the loss of millions of dollars is motivation to not act like a Neanderthal in public.

Redemption? Please. Success on the football field does not make you a better person, though some in the sports media try to frame it that way.

Roethlisberger's style of play is called "bruising." That is being celebrated by many this week. For others it conjures up details of the evidence -- "bruises, lacerations and bleeding" -- that was found on a 20-year-old, 5-foot-4 college girl last March, after she went to the police and then to the hospital.

Guess your perspective all depends on what prism you're looking through.

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