I’ve lived in and around Pittsburgh long enough to have a good sense as to the manner in which the folks who reside there think about the men who play sports in that blue-collar, black-and-gold town.
If they love you, it’s unconditional, and they’ll stand up for you no matter what. If they decide they don’t like you, it can get ugly. Quickly.
Not long ago, Steelers fans regarded Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as a brother or a son. The loyalty was blind, and the suggestion that he holds the ball too long or that he can be a bit of a jerk in social settings or that some of the guys in the locker room don’t like him very much was met with the same kind of zeal that a mama bear on meth would employ to protect her cub.
Now, after a month-long investigation of sexual assault charges during which Roethlisberger (via his lawyers) placed ensuring his liberty over preserving his image, the folks in Pittsburgh have turned, dramatically. Stoked by a local media that is showing an uncanny amount of nerve when it comes to speaking openly and candidly about matters such as whether Ben should be shipped out of town and still seeing no meaningful effort from Roethlisberger to reclaim their affection, what started as a snowball has become an avalanche.
So it’s not surprising that Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports now reports via Twitter that Roethlisberger’s status with the franchise “could [be] at [a] tipping point,” due to an unnamed source who says that the “onslaught of fan discontent over Ben has shaken Pittsburgh ownership.”
What’s surprising is that ownership would be surprised by the reaction.
One of the major reasons for the current attitude toward Roethlisberger is the failure of ownership to say or do anything aimed at getting the locals to forgive, forget, and move on. (Part of the problem is that no one is really sure what they’d be forgiving and forgetting.) With Dan Rooney refusing last night to comment on whether the team supports its starting quarterback, it could only get worse.
Thus, while we’re told that the Roethlisberger camp has gotten no indication via daily communications with team president Art Rooney and coach Mike Tomlin that the two-time Super-Bowl winner is in the process of getting run out of town, the Rooneys are — intentionally or otherwise — letting the fans and the media dictate whether Ben is still wanted. If the Rooneys are committed to keeping Ben, the organization needs to give him a very public hug as soon as possible, and Ben needs to drop the demeanor of a guilty man who got lucky because his alleged victim was too drunk and reluctant to proceed, and he needs to begin the process of getting the folks in Pittsburgh to welcome the prodigal son home.
That said, the protracted silence from the player and the team could make it too late to turn this thing around. Indeed, it’s gotten so bad in the ‘Burgh that we’re not sure how the process of cleaning up the mess could even begin.
At this point, the only hope will be for a suspension to satisfy the city’s thirst for punishment, for the passage of time to unruffle their feathers, and for the performance of Roethlisberger upon his return to action to prompt the fans to welcome back their quarterback.
Even then, it’ll be an uphill climb for Roethlisberger to ever come close to the status he enjoyed in Pittsburgh after securing that sixth Super Bowl title.