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Big Ben’s toll

Penalty served, the idea now is to redeem, rebuild

These Steelers fans made their feelings clear at Ben Roethlisberger’s first game back from his four-game suspension. These Steelers fans made their feelings clear at Ben Roethlisberger’s first game back from his four-game suspension. (Gene J. Puskar/ Associated Press)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / November 14, 2010

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PITTSBURGH — The trash can stands on the right side of the room, lashed with duct tape, with a crude basketball court marked off with masking tape in front of it. Though the tape is curled and peeling — the result of a daily beating by the feet of 300-pound football players — the court is still good enough. So is the ball, a white mess that in no way calls to mind the regulation leather one used in the NBA but fits the can just right, at least most of the time.

Ben Roethlisberger is a veteran of these games, with his opponent often wide receiver Mike Wallace, the hyper-activity and trash talk permeating a locker room that is otherwise subdued. He kicked off his white Nikes Thursday afternoon, leaving only black ankle socks, and proceeded to narrowly miss a victory, though he provided endless entertainment for himself and Wallace with stream-of-consciousness chatter and a mimed baby powder toss.

So goes the post-suspension locker room life of the Steelers quarterback, as he continues to ease back into the NFL after missing the first four games of the 2010 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. The NFL imposed a four-game suspension after Roethlisberger was accused, for the second time, of sexual misconduct.

“He’s more open to a lot of guys,’’ said wide receiver Hines Ward. “For years, he only hung out with certain people. Maybe that was his defense mechanism or whatever. But he’s opened himself up to everybody, playing basketball with all the rookies, hanging out with offensive and defensive players, special teams guys. Coming over, conversing. It’s good to see him making a conscious effort to better himself.’’

It’s noticeable. Roethlisberger seems to fit. It’s clear that an effort is being made.

“I think he’s done a nice job,’’ said coach Mike Tomlin. “He’s himself. He’s appreciating being around his teammates and preparing to play games and, ultimately, play winning football for us.

“It’s a process — one that we understand he will continue to go through, as will we, but it doesn’t dominate our thought by any stretch.’’

The next steps That process started after Roethlisberger was accused of sexually assaulting a college student in Milledgeville, Ga., last March, though no criminal charges were filed. That came on the heels of an allegation of sexual assault on a woman in a Lake Tahoe hotel in 2008. There is a civil lawsuit pending in that case.

The NFL initially suspended Roethlisberger for the first six games of the season, a punishment later reduced to four.

It’s not a new story, not for sports fans who have been through the sagas of Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, and others: An athlete misbehaves, is punished, makes his comeback. But what comes next?

Other than Roethlisberger’s return to the field, now four games old, what comes next for him in the eyes of his teammates, his coaches, and especially his fans? Is there redemption in professional sports, other than gaining yards and touchdowns and wins?

“I think that in all aspects of life we are somewhat compassionate and accept redemption,’’ said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern’s Center for Sport in Society. “I just think that it’s important for people to earn that redemption. So I don’t think players are any different than politicians or people in any other professional field who hit a speed bump.

“There are a lot of people that, at some point in their life, fall off.

“In this case, you have a league that creates a great structure for them to be accountable. Then you have the chance to do it personally, and accept accountability, and then they have a chance to move forward.

“In every aspect of life, there’s all kinds of people that fall off. It’s how they return, the responsibility, the accepting, the accountability, that they see as their own that allows people to be compassionate and allows for redemption.’’

‘Moving forward’ While there will always be those who do not forgive — among Steelers fans as well as the general population — the NFL seems to have helped in the quest for acceptance. Taking four games away from Roethlisberger helps.

“The league has taken a very good leadership position in setting a code of conduct and rules of engagement,’’ Lebowitz said. “When you look at [commissioner] Roger Goodell, he’s really set clear parameters of suspensions and the like, so I think that because people can respect the league and the way that they’re approaching code of conduct and workplace conduct, that it allows for the fans to sort of embrace the brand and the player in an easier fashion when the player returns.’’

Roethlisberger hasn’t spoken much on the accusations, citing legal proceedings, but he told ESPN before returning from his suspension that he “would never hurt a female like that, never.’’ When approached about the subject this past week, he was reticent, saying, “It’s in the past. I’m moving forward and focusing on football. Just focusing on being the best football player I can be.

“That’s the natural thing of life is to put things behind you and move forward. I don’t think you want to focus and dwell on the past, because then you lose track of the things that can happen in the future.’’

His teammates understand, as much as they can. Ward sees what Roethlisberger has gone through and believes he’s trying to come back better. There are no guarantees, but Ward watches what his quarterback has done since his return, listens to what he has said.

“It can be very humbling when you’re on top of the world and an unfortunate incident happens,’’ Ward said. “Seems like you’re at rock bottom, and the only way to get back on top is to have to go through some trials and tribulations.

“The best way to come out of it is to stick together as a family and be there for one another. He’s come back more determined than ever to go out and not let his teammates down, not let this organization down, not let his family down.

“You have to strip yourself down, tear yourself back up, and rebuild yourself.’’

Fallibility and forgiveness Roethlisberger said he has been received on the road just as before, a statement that stretches the imagination slightly.

“It’s always a level of hatred for us, but there’s always a lot of Steelers fans,’’ he said.

Nothing extra? “Not that I’ve noticed,’’ he said.

If so, that speaks to the public’s ability to forgive, even when a player has been accused of sexual assault more than once.

“People understand that all humans have human qualities and can be fallible,’’ Lebowitz said. “The question is, at what point do you accept leadership, at what point do you understand your role in the leadership, not only of yourself? At what point do you accept that, and how do you put that message forward in a positive way?’’

“Not only is the league providing a structure for players, but players are smart about their need to address things in a mature fashion or to accept accountability. They have a chance really to become spokespeople and sort of have redemption.

“When you’re allowed a platform for redemption, then maybe you make the best of that circumstance, and I think the public can be extremely forgiving.’’

That’s not to say, though, that Roethlisberger has been or will be accepted by everyone.

Perhaps in the end it comes down to what Ward said, an axiom that has seemed to hold true for athletes in almost every sport, every situation: “Winning solves everything.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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