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As soon as the Patriots were eliminated, my preferences for the rest of the playoffs were never really in doubt: for the Steelers to knock off the Jets, because if the Jets even made it to the Big Dance at the expense of the Patriots, we'd never hear the end of it around here. And then for the Green Bay Packers to eliminate the Steelers -- there would be no love lost between them and Patriots fans, either.
There's plenty of on-field history between the Patriots and the Steelers over the last decade to account for that. As with the Jets, there is also a bit of a culture clash between the Patriots and the Steelers as expressions of their home cities / regions, just to add an extra chip to the proverbial shoulder. All of that was enough to have me watching last night, and with a definite side I was rooting for.
But what had me hollering at my father's television during last night's tense second half, as if my team were actually in the game, mostly had to do with -- you guessed it -- the guy playing quarterback for the Steelers.
But then, in the midst of them all, there is still the hulking, lumbering Ben Roethlisberger, never my favorite among my team's rivals to begin with, in the beginning because it was fairly obvious that the guy just isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. Since the beginning, the word to describe him in my mind would be ungraceful, whether it was when he earned his first concussion not on the field of play but in a motorcycle accident in which he was not wearing a helmet, or his barely-literate postings on his official blog years ago, before a publicist finally got hold of it about a year after he started it.
And then, of course, there are the sexual assault allegations. But addressing that elephant in the room -- or the stadium, as it were -- does require some further preamble.
Female sports fans also under a microscope this week
Oddly enough, perhaps prompted by the high-profile accusations against Roethlisberger, there was also plenty of talk in the run-up to the Super Bowl last week about, as one Atlantic writer put it, "The Plight of the Female Sports Fan." (Some more analysis along those lines here and here.)
I did roll my eyes just a little at the Atlantic's usage of the word "plight" -- it seemed a tad hyperbolic, to be frank. People, in, say, Tibet, could be said to have a "plight". Female Americans with sufficient disposable income to spend on being sports fans...not quite so much.
I may be a woman who doesn't consider 'feminist' a dirty word, but I also have to say that when I first set out to compose some kind of polemic about the well-publicized accusations of sexual assault against Roethlisberger, it felt somewhat hollow. There are all sorts of tangled discussions it raises, if you really want to get into the deep groove with your gender politics in this case -- for example, rooting against Roethlisberger solely because of the rape accusations couldn't have been entirely pure, as several Green Bay Packers players have also had accusations leveled at them. It can also overlap with and drag in another tangled discussion, about head injuries and the NFL.
Generally, it is also worth retaining the perspective that while things aren't exactly perfect, there has also never been a better time to be a female sports fan, or just female, period, than right now (provided you live in the First World, of course). Roll back even a decade, and you'll find less progressive mainstream attitudes towards women's issues across the board, inside and outside of sports.
To that disclaimer, let me also add this: the fact that Ben Roethlisberger didn't get to hoist a Super Bowl trophy, or, heaven forbid, an MVP trophy, last night doesn't actually solve the problem of violence against women by athletes, or anyone else. Obviously.
Now, here comes the "But."
Having said all of the above...
I can't act like I was happy the Steelers didn't win last night solely because it officially knocked them out of any potential 'Team of the Decade' debate vs. the Patriots (and even then, it would only be if you wanted to get all persnickety about which year a new decade technically starts), or only because it puts a nice little pin in the balloon of the Roethlisberger / Brady comparisons that had begun to fly around.
I can't act like being a female sports fan is completely without its Twilight Zone moments, moments in which I am somehow always taken aback, surprised this kind of thing is still said aloud these days, such as when I have been told that I "know a lot about sports for a girl." Then there's the whole "pink hat" symbology discussion, which has already been done to death.
I can't act like it hasn't struck me how many of the expressions in the everyday vernacular of mainstream professional sports, among the athletes as well as the fans, rely upon a fundamental equation of femininity with inferiority to get the point across, e.g. "tuck in your skirt," or "you throw like a girl," to name the more polite ones I can think of.
I can't possibly have read any mainstream sports blogs, either, without being aware of the place that at least some people seem to believe women should occupy in sports: as decorative accessories. That message comes across loud and clear with every cheesecake shot of a half-naked or body-painted woman that gets posted for the sole purpose of displaying a team's colors and logo. With every sneering comment you can find in certain corners of the 'Net when it comes to women in sports, as athletes, fans, journalists and otherwise. With every instance of "she's probably a money-hungry liar" apology in cases like Roethlisberger's.
I also can't act like I haven't been socialized differently, starting at a very young age, to be aware of my surroundings, and of the potential for violent attack, in a very different way than any of the men I know. I can't act like I don't know the statistics on how many sexual assaults are estimated to result in even formal charges against alleged perpetrators, let alone convictions. I can't pretend, either, like I don't know already that the de facto probability of either of those things happening when the accused is a nationally famous athlete is practically nil.
And even if he wasn't the only guy out there on the field last night with such allegations in his past, I just can't forget the things I've read about the Roethlisberger case in Georgia, worst of all the image of bodyguards posted outside a bathroom door at a bar, while behind it a 241-pound professional athlete did...something...with a petite 20-year-old college student.
It's true that we will probably never know for certain exactly what that "something" was, but let's just say the rest of the above does not make me inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Without a day in court to either clear his name completely, or settle the facts and sentence him, those of us disturbed by the story in Georgia have -- sadly -- had to turn to the sport in which he plays, as well as some form of belief in raw karma itself, for any sort of punishment on Roethlisberger. Which the league meted out, to some extent, with a six-game suspension, reduced in the end to four for proper public relations performances and good behavior. Which, when it comes to the raw karma part, was also taken care of, at least to some extent, by the sight of Roethlisberger's eyes rolling in consternation behind the plastic bubble attached to his facemask last night.
I can't act like all these thoughts aren't there.
As with my relief that we can now avoid the way a Steelers win would've upped the blowhard factor in G.O.A.T. QB debates by a factor of 1000, the kind of grim schadenfreude I feel about the outcome of this Super Bowl is mostly about what didn't happen.
In the same year in which he served his personal-conduct suspension, Ben Roethlisberger did not get a chance to begin some kind of redemption story in the public eye. He was not given a chance to finally lose the hounds that have been following him while riding shotgun next to Mickey at Disney World. He was not given a chance, as The Onion satirically put it before the game, to officially return to 'good person' status, all sins forgiven in the warm spotlight of athletic glory. (For what it's worth, all of the above is less probable with the accused Packers players, given that they are less well known, and less likely to be given individual credit for their team's success.)
Does that solve everything? Again, I'll tell you, certainly not. But it is something. And that's about all I can say.