Will Ben Roethlisberger get a pass at this Super Bowl?

 

The National Football League’s Super Bowl matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers probably will draw a lot of people to a television set on February 6, but the game also has a chance to become very political because of the Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers quarterback has been involved in two highly publicized “incidents” with women and earned a four game suspension from the NFL for whatever happened.

Of course, very few people know what really happened in both cases. But the fact that Roethlisberger is in the national spotlight should spark some attention from national media about athletes and behavior.

Did Big Ben’s win over the Jets complete his rehabilitation and his image or should there be a real discussion about Roethlisberger and others not only in the NFL but all sports who have been in trouble?

Don’t expect anything from Rupert Murdoch’s FOX syndication or his FOX News Channel on the topic. Don’t expect people like Kathy Redmond to all of a sudden be on Face the Nation, Meet the Press or This Week discussing jocks and sexual assault. There is no way the National Football League television partners, Murdoch and FOX, General Electric (soon to be Comcast/GE) and NBC, Disney’s ABC or Sumner Redstone’s CBS would ever touch that type of story.

Kathy Redmond would be a great guest on FOX’s Super Bowl pre-game hype show. Redmond was allegedly raped twice by University of Nebraska star Christian Peter at the university in 1991. The university did nothing to punish Peter at the time. Eventually Congressman Tom Osborne, the former Nebraska coach, apologized to Redmond. She founded The National Coalition Against Violent Athletes in 1998.

Needless to say, Redmond isn’t a hero to all, particularly in the jock community.

The National Coalition Against Violent Athletes has no place at the Super Bowl table. It is too dangerous to the image of the NFL. Kathy Redmond and her group should be heard however during the Super Bowl lead up, especially with Roethlisberger being so prominent in the game.

Instead there will be the nonsense about how Big Ben has been a good citizen, kept quiet and served his four game suspension. Roethlisberger will be rehabilitated by the media and will just become a loveable, maybe slightly misunderstood fellow. As long as Lawrence Taylor could terrorize offenses during this time with the New York Giants, a lot of stuff off the field was overlooked and during the LT days with the Giants there were some allegations that some people were given money to look the other way at LT’s discretions although nothing was ever substantiated. LT was probably just misunderstood as well.

The news will pivot to the last small town NFL team playing another grand old NFL team and the coverage will get silly.

The Super Bowl is serious business however. It was a catalyst behind a holiday in Arizona and changed broadcast rules in the United States. It is like Christmas, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving rolled into one.

The Super Bowl is after all, America’s Holiday. It is the Christmas sales season for fast food pizza, supermarket markets which have Super Bowl sales on snacks, it is a big day for beer sales and there are the commercials which are seemingly more important than the game.

The truth is this. The Super Bowl has an economic impact on virtually every city, town, village and hamlet in New Jersey and the United States because people are throwing parties and buying big screen TVs and food. The Super Bowl has been in the past an agent for change both in Arizona and in the world of television and radio in the United States.

The National Football League pulled a Super Bowl from Arizona and put the political weight of the entity known as the NFL into a lobbying position in the state capital in Phoenix. Arizona “celebrates” Martin Luther King Day as the result of direct intervention by the National Football League in terms of dangling a Super Bowl in front of voters. In 1987, newly elected Arizona Governor Evan Mecham’s first act in his new job was to erase Martin Luther King Day from the Arizona calendar as an official state holiday. That decision set off a boycott of the state with entertainers like Stevie Wonder refusing to perform in any venue in Arizona.

Governor Mecham’s reasoning was simple. The Arizona legislature in 1986 and Governor Bruce Babbitt, in Mecham’s opinion, created the holiday illegally.

The National Football League, in an attempt to help the Phoenix Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill to sell more seats after he misread the Phoenix-area market following the move of his Cardinals from St. Louis to Tempe in 1988, awarded Tempe the January 31, 1993 Super Bowl. But Mecham’s decision created a number of problems for the league, specifically the National Football League Players Association was not too keen on playing the NFL’s showcase game in a state where a governor took away the holiday and the action was supported by Senator John McCain.

In 1989, the Arizona state legislature approved a law making Martin Luther King Day a state holiday but voters needed to approve the measure. In 1990, Arizonans went to the polls and rejected the making Martin Luther King Day a state holiday. Shortly after the voters said no, the NFL said no to Arizona and pulled the January 31, 1993 game from Tempe.

The National Football League after pulling the 1993 game went back to Arizona and laid the cards out on the table telling voters if they approved the holiday in a November 1992 vote, the NFL would award the next available Super Bowl to Tempe. Arizona voters approved the 1992 ballot initiative and five months later the NFL lived up to their part of the bargain and granted Tempe the January 28, 1996 game.

Given the events of the past year in Arizona, it would seem that the National Football League will make another statement with silence. The Super Bowl probably is not returning to Glendale, Arizona any time in the new future and will give the game to “quieter” areas.

Meanwhile, the 2004 Super Bowl changed TV. Janet Jackson has left more of an impression on American society than her brother, the late Michael Jackson, because without Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, Texas back on February 1, 2004, American’s would be getting “live” over-the-air radio and TV, warts and all, since over-the-air radio and TV station owners would not have to worry about being fined for indecent programming whether it is a visual or something said.

American politicians and political appointees or at least those politicians who were pandering for a certain block of voters became prudes and put more teeth into public airwaves indecency laws because of Janet Jackson. Those politicians wanted to protect viewers and listeners who tune into over-the-air radio or TV shows and might be offended by language or nudity. Cable TV, broadband and satellite radio do not have the same restrictions for whatever reason.

That performance changed how America’s receive over-the-air TV and radio offerings and gave American conservatives a new rallying point and eventually would introduce a new censorship or morality through the threat of hefty fines against media companies who might be found in violation of “indecency.”

Of course “indecency” is in the eye of the beholder and for some members of Congress, it took about 15 hours for them to start screaming about Janet Jackson’s exposed breast on the steps of the Capitol in Washington.

Viacom’s CBS television network had the rights to the game which featured New England and Carolina. As part of the game presentation, Viacom had MTV produce the halftime show which featured Jackson and Justin Timberlake. During a song and dance routine, Timberlake exposed Jackson’s breast for less than a second but that was enough time to get the “purity and vice” machine of the Republican Party going on morality. The usual suspects got on that bandwagon led by The Parents Television Council, Brett Bozell and Phyllis Schlafly. Congress got on that train as well as Michigan Republican Fred Upton proposed legislation that would raise fines for violating indecency rules from the 2004 level of $27,500 to $275,000. Zell Miller, the Democrat who was the United States Senator from Georgia, thought the incident was part of the “decaying morality of America” and Federal Communications Chairman Michael Powell wanted an immediate investigation into the Super Bowl half time show.

This was red meat for certain politicians and their followers but for the most part it was a tame incident that was not really seen but most people until they were alerted to the fact that there was an “wardrobe malfunction” and that is when most people saw the incident on TIVO in slow motion. What has been forgotten about the Super Bowl show were the actions of the other acts including a performance by Nelly in which he pointed to his crotch and Kid Rock’s poncho which looked like a cut up American flag.

Even more interesting, Janet Jackson was fingered as the culprit and got the brunt of the criticism with Timberlake pretty much emerging unscathed.

The NFL put out an apology almost immediately for the halftime show and fired MTV on the spot although the league had no problem accepting Viacom’s money for the right to show the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl gave conservative Republicans running for office in 2004 a platform and they ran with it. Janet Jackson was soon replaced on the indecency list by Howard Stern and eventually the whole thing morphed into a debate about gay rights (the Dick Chaney-John Edwards Vice President debate) which was a perfect plank for the Republicans in a Presidential election. An issue with little substance or importance, perfect for the American TV and radio punditry culture.

Eventually, Viacom was fined $550,000 for broadcasting the Jackson “wardrobe malfunctioning” incident. CBS continues to appeal the fine.

After the Super Bowl incident, Michael Powell and the FCC dug in and started to go after other areas.

By October 2004, Commissioner Powell and his FCC colleagues started thinking whether or not a hockey game that feature fights was suitable programming between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily.

The Federal Communications Commission did a study at the behest of Congress on over-the-air, cable and satellite television violence and how that type of programming impacts children.

The FCC already had rules banning so-called indecent programming on radio and TV between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily. The FCC indecency guidelines have been in effect since 2001 but most people were unaware of the rules until Janet Jackson’s bare breast was exposed after a “wardrobe malfunction.”

The FCC was very serious in 2004 about what was seen on TV, after all it was an election year but the study was crucial business not only to those looking for an election issue aside from the Iraq War and the FCC could give politicians some cover for other “important” issues.

Yes, hockey fighting might very well be considered violent programming. This is a major problem for not only the National Hockey League, but also the National Football League which has sold violence for decades going back to the CBS production of the Violent World of Sam Huff, narrated by Walter Cronkite, in 1960.

One of sports major selling points is violence. When the Nashville Predators began marketing its product to Tennessee in 1998, the marketing department showed hockey collisions and NASCAR accidents in sales presentations.

Sports TV highlight shows feature collisions, fighting and general rowdy behavior. Sports video games routinely feature fighting and blood.

The National Hockey League did fight back in 2004. NHL attorney Phillip Hochberg wrote a letter to the FCC saying that “the NHL feels that it is improper to even consider whether a sport like hockey would fall into any definition of televised `violence.”

Should both the Congress and the FCC get involved and regulate fighting in hockey, violence in football, boxing matches, and high and tight pitches in baseball? Of course not.

The morality fight continued after the Janet Jackson Super Bowl. ABC-TV scheduled the movie Saving Private Ryan for Veteran’s Day 2004 but 65 of the network’s affiliates would not show it because of language concerns in the movie. Howard Stern was fired by Clear Channel stations (whose Texas owners had heavy ties to the Bush White House although to be fair Clear Channel became a major factor in the broadcasting industry because of the 1996 Telecommunications Act signed by President Clinton). There were incidents surrounding the 2009 Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl is much more than just a championship football game.

Evan Weiner
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle. He can be reached at evanjweiner@yahoo.com

 

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