This past summer, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell found himself facing a situation every authority figure dreads. His reputation hinged on how he handled a greasy-haired young man sitting in front of him, brandishing a smirk. The lug in question was Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, who had been accused of rape for the second time in a year, in this instance by a 20-year-old college student in Georgia. Arming himself for the conversation, Goodell had talked to two dozen other players, including other Steelers. “Not one, not a single player, went to his defense,” Goodell told Sports Illustrated. The vanity of the quarterback is that he is such a beloved leader that his teammates forgive even his transgressions. But, as Goodell made his way down the list of the Roethlisberger’s peers, he must have begun to see the quarterback as an icon of a different sort, as professional football’s Bigger Thomas.
Four months later, Roethlisberger is further down the commissioner’s list of things to worry about—the league’s collective bargaining agreement expires this spring and a lockout is looming; the owners are insisting that the physically brutal season be extended by two games; and evidence about the long-term consequences of brain injuries sustained on the playing field has been mounting, horribly—but it seems neatly appropriate that the season will end where it began: with the Steelers quarterback occupying center stage, this time in the Super Bowl. That’s because each of the problems facing Goodell betrays the NFL’s underlying conflict: Modernizing a brutal game means shedding the throwback elements that are often its biggest attraction. And, although Roethlisberger is far from the NFL’s most important problem, he is in some ways its most emblematic one.
Roethlisberger’s fundamental attribute, as a player, is that he is a quarterback who is built like a meat-processing plant. Modern passing offenses are intricately arranged entities: They require the quarterback to instantly assess the defense’s shifting scheme, imagine where vulnerabilities might appear, and to tick through a series of probabilities before throwing the ball. Its masters, not usually physical specimens, are quarterback-horologists with quick-twitch minds, dads teetering on the edge of middle age: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and the emerging Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers.
Roethlisberger is the opposite of all that. He has one of the slowest releases in the league, so pedantic that you can just about see the ox-cart wheels of his mind turning. And yet, his immensity permits him to stand still behind his line—defenders struggling to bring him down—waiting long enough to heave the ball over everyone’s head, to a streaking wide receiver. At his worst, Roethlisberger is capable of some astoundingly stupid throws. But he is also responsible for many of the crude thrills of the last few seasons, the elemental pleasure of a country-strong ball heaved so far and so true that not even the post-graduate complexities of contemporary defensive engineering can stop it.
One evening last March, this small-town icon was in a Milledgeville, Georgia, bar to celebrate his twenty-eighth birthday. He walked up to a young woman with whom he’d been flirting (“all my bitches, take some shots!”) with his penis hanging out of his pants, according to the handwritten account she gave police later that night, and led her into a bar bathroom where he raped her. Her friends tried to get into the bathroom, but Roethlisberger’s private security team barred the door. When she finally left, she went outside with her friends, searched for the first police car she could find, and told the officer she’d been raped. Charges were eventually dropped, after the victim declined to pursue the case, but the moral contours of the situation, from the court documents, seem as stark as those that condemned Mike Tyson—and sent him to prison.
What is particularly striking is that Roethlisberger—who is from Ohio and has lived his whole life in the Midwest, whose current contract is worth $102 million, who could have been in Dubai or South Beach, cavorting with supermodels—chose to celebrate his birthday in small-town Georgia. It is impossible, for instance, to imagine Brady, whose wife is the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen, appearing in Milledgeville except by contractual obligation. But these are the terms of Roethlisberger’s throwback celebrity. He went where he would be adored.
The NFL has worked hard to preserve the sport’s small town heritage, and to insulate its franchises against the market. Take this Sunday’s matchup. Given modern economics, it is astounding that Green Bay even has a team. The city is the two hundred and sixty eighth largest city in the country, far from any major metropolitan area, smaller than Gresham, Oregon, Richardson, Texas, and West Covina, California. Roethlisberger’s Steelers are football’s version of the Yankees, but only in a controlled market could they manage this position: In baseball’s less protected market, the Pittsburgh team has lost more games than it has won every year since 1992; the city is simply too small to sponsor a competitive team. This position has won the league acclaim and loyalty: The Packers and the Steelers have two of the league’s largest fan bases.
But other anachronisms from football’s past have proved more difficult to update. There is the nostalgia for violence, and the suggestion from commentators that to make the game safer is to choke its soul. And there is the boorish entitlement of throwback heroes like Brett Favre and Roethlisberger, who still imagine they have the run of the town.
Earlier this fall, I found that I could not get the theme song from an NFL Network commercial out of my head. I went to iTunes to download it, imagining the performers to be a brother-sister cohort from some obscure branch of the Carter-Cash family tree, ably marshaled by T-Bone Burnett. But the song turned out to be by an unimpeachably stoned bearded hipster and dectet from West Hollywood called Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (possibly a nonet: I couldn’t spot the guy with the banjo in all their performances). No wonder I’d liked the song so much. Any authenticity was buried, Princess and the Pea-like, beneath piled-up layers of irony and remove. And, though Brady and Manning are stars, and their own brand of football has its adherents, the NFL knows very well what it is selling (a sentimental feeling about small-town life), and to whom (people like me). It is winking at itself, just subtly enough that its fans can enjoy the joke.
Because I am genuinely a fan, because I understand that the clockwork of modern football is most gorgeous as counterpoint to the caveman attributes of players like Ray Lewis (the violent, brilliant Ravens linebacker, headed for the Hall of Fame, who once beat a murder charge) or Roethlisberger, I don’t envy Goodell his position. But the looming problem of player concussions means the league can no longer be content with its half-way modernization—its four-game suspensions for accused rape, its insistence that players play two more games a year even as the devastating health risks of each incremental collision are looming into view. Goodell will soon have to choose, whether his league is for the cavemen or against them. And so, if the Steelers win on Sunday, and Goodell has to hand Roethlisberger his third Super Bowl trophy, I will be watching the commissioner’s face, to see whether he greets his champion with a wink or with a wince.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, and a Schwartz fellow at The New America Foundation.