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Pardoned passer

Sports | Big Ben's wrongdoing meets an indifferent public

Issue: "Flame-outs," May 8, 2010

In early March, news broke of a police investigation in Milledgeville, Ga., into allegations of sexual assault against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. A month later, district attorney Fred Bright announced that he would not file charges in the case due to insufficient evidence and the alleged victim's desire to avoid media attention.

All eyes then turned to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. On April 21, Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for six games and ordered him to undergo a "comprehensive behavioral evaluation by medical professionals."

Perhaps even more important than the court of NFL executives, however, is the court of public opinion. Suspensions come and go in mere weeks. A tarnished image can stick for years.

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Whatever the lack of criminal evidence, this case has plenty of confirmed material to convict Roethlisberger of being a bad guy. According to investigators, he invited a 20-year-old student into the V.I.P. area of a nightclub, bought her and her friends numerous shots of alcohol, and then followed the young woman into the bathroom while members of his entourage guarded the entrance. The woman suffered a laceration and slight bleeding in the vaginal area.

Adding to the weight of such details, Roethlisberger is already embroiled in a civil lawsuit stemming from a separate allegation of sexual assault last year.

Nevertheless, the repercussions of the two-time Super Bowl winner's actions among fans appear minimal. Sales of his jersey remain in the top 15 for any player league-wide. And Nike has elected to stand by its man, as it did with Tiger Woods.

In fact, Roethlisberger's latest round of sexual malfeasance appears less damaging to his public image than his 2006 motorcycle accident, when every talking head and concerned mothers group castigated him for not wearing a helmet. In the wake of that crash, Roethlisberger felt compelled to apologize to teammates, fans, and family for not taking his safety seriously and to promise that any future rides "certainly will be with a helmet."

This time around, the quarterback's apology didn't so much as mention the incident in question, instead emphasizing regret for any "negative attention" brought on family, teammates, and coaches: "I am happy to put this behind me and move forward."

Judging by the absence of public condemnations, sponsors and fans seem happy to do the same. Neither Nike nor the public was so gracious in the wake of Michael Vick's dog-fighting scandal. It is a strange world indeed when biking without a helmet and mis­treating canines yields greater moral outrage than predatory sexual deviance.

Whale of a ride

Surfer Jodie Nelson hoped that her attempt to paddle atop a surf board the nearly 40 miles of open ocean from Catalina Island to the Southern California coast would raise $100,000 for breast cancer research. Instead, her fundraising efforts had yielded just $6,000 when the day came to make the trek.

But an unexpected fellow voyager, who joined Nelson for almost two hours along the trip, may now yield more funds than she could have dreamed. A 30-foot minke whale, whom Nelson nicknamed Larry, swam alongside and under her board, blowing bubbles up from below. The highly unusual behavior from a species rarely spotted in California waters has triggered national media attention and helped highlight Nelson's two benefactor organizations: Keep a Breast Foundation and Boarding for Breast Cancer.

Nelson said she had prayed the morning before embarking on the nine-hour paddle that God would reveal Himself along the way. She considers the presence of Larry an answer to prayer.

Bringing exposure to two lesser known breast cancer research groups might well qualify as answered prayer, too, given the recent revelations that the country's largest breast cancer charity, Susan G. Komen, has funneled monies to Planned Parenthood, a provider and defender of abortion.

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