In 2004, nine games into his rookie season, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was threatened with an NFL fine. The reason? He was putting “PFJ”-“Play for Jesus”- on his cleats.
Now, the NFL has slapped him with a multi-million dollar fine and a six-game suspension. The reason? One night a few weeks back, Roethlisberger, donning a black t-shirt with the devil’s face on the front, got into a heap of trouble in a rural Georgia bar.
There’s been more media coverage of this than of the financial crisis, so the details are pretty well known. Roethlisberger’s night-carousing, drinking, partying, surrounded by his entourage and a group of young women-ended with a 20-year-old girl crying, and crying rape. Her friends tell a story, which, according to police records, is ugly: Roethlisberger buying drinks for the girls. Lots of drinks. Then, going into a private bathroom with one amazingly inebriated girl. Her friends complaining to Roethlisberger’s entourage, who refuse to intervene. After that? Accusation and denial.
Roethlisberger’s fall is stunning. In 2004, he said of the threat to fine him for the “PFJ” shoes, “It’s a rule. I don’t make them and I don’t want to break them….” Then he added that he still intended to carry the Jesus message into his next game, even if it wasn’t visible. “It’ll be somewhere,” Roethlisberger said. “Let’s see if they find it.”
Secrecy then? How cute. Now? Not so much. Because there is only one person who truly knows what happened that night in Georgia-one person who, according to police records, wasn’t so drunk as to know what planet he was on: Ben Roethlisberger.
So what does he do?
If he does as most everyone expects, he will follow the Disgraced Athlete Comeback Program. He’ll donate a lot of money. He’ll go to more charitable events. He’ll smile more and wear fewer devil t-shirts. And he’ll win football games, counting on a public that prefers winning to character.
But what if Roethlisberger did something radically different?
What if he found his old pair of rookie cleats? What if he saw the “PFJ” inked on them with a black marker and decided…to tell the truth? What if he held a press conference and put his hand on the Bible, made an oath, and told the world what really happened that night? What if he got down to the sordid details, so that even if what he did is legally covered, yet morally slimy, he would still be facing up to his behavior?
Now, maybe Roethlisberger been done wrong here. Maybe this is a one-sided set up. If so, he should say that, too.
If, however, Roethlisberger knows that what he has done is not just morally but legally wrong, he should turn himself in to the prosecutor and throw himself on the mercy of the judicial system. That would be radical.
Yes, jail is a possibility. But it is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do as a man, as a person who must still have faith in his life, and as a leader. Plus, God has a thing for people in jail. Think of it as a new kind of PFJ-Prison for Jesus.
The societal ramifications shouldn’t be underestimated here. Think of the message sent to kids everywhere: The truth matters. Actions have consequences, and we have to be willing to face them.
How thoroughly different would this be from what we expect of disgraced public figures? Let me count the ways. It would be like Barry Bonds admitting he used steroids and petitioning Major League Baseball to discredit his home runs during the seasons he used them. (Heck, that action alone might actually get him into the Hall of Fame.) It would be like a politician accused of a wrongdoing admitting that yes, it was true, and he would give up his office for it.
It would be enough to crack the plaster cast of cynicism that increasingly defines American life.
There’s another term for what I’m asking Ben to do. Repent. Turn another direction. PFJ, Ben. PFJ.
David Kuo is the author of Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction.