The New Republic: The NFL Caveman Conundrum
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.
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.