Ben Roethlisberger was easy to admire as a quarterback, but not as a man

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<span>Photograph: Ed Zurga/AP</span>
Photograph: Ed Zurga/AP

Ben Roethlisberger is lucky that football legacies are not decided by finales. If Sunday night was indeed Big Ben’s last ever NFL game, as he has strongly hinted, it wasn’t exactly a mic drop. In the 42-21 beatdown by the Chiefs, Roethlisberger struggled with rollouts, and lacked the creativity and finesse of his opposing number, Patrick Mahomes.

Just as no one places too much weight on Dan Marino’s 62-7 playoff loss to the Jaguars in his career finale, Roethlisberger’s clunker of an ending won’t be a significant part of his story. But in comparison to Marino – and most other quarterbacks – Roethlisberger’s legacy is complicated.

His on-field success over an 18-season NFL career speaks for itself. Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl winner and will one day be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Steelers haven’t suffered a single losing season with him under center. In turn, they’ve been a playoff staple – during Sunday’s loss Roethlisberger passed Joe Montana and Brett Favre for the third-most career passing yards in the playoffs.

Injuries and age have taken their toll, and in recent years the team often won in spite of their quarterback rather than because of him. Roethlisberger in his prime, though, was an absolute marvel. With his signature pump fakes and ability to escape pressure, he had a habit of extending plays and converting first downs that didn’t seem possible … until they were. He wasn’t flashy like younger quarterbacks such as Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen. Nor was he a quarterback like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, who often seem five steps ahead of opposing defensive coordinators. He was just Ben. Gritty. Strong. Tough.

Related: The Cowboys are the world’s most valuable team. So why are they so bad at winning?

While Roethlisberger’s farewell tour has come with incessant gushing from teammates, broadcasters and Steelers fans, the NFL world at large doesn’t have the same fuzzy feelings. Some of that is Roethlisberger’s personality. He’s surly and can be difficult with the media. He also has a history of publicly calling out teammates.

But most of the hostility stems from Roethlisberger’s history with women.

ESPN’s Brian Griese spent the majority of Week 18’s Monday Night Football broadcast talking up Roethlisberger as if he were the Messiah. At one point, Griese paused his lovefest to channel his inner journalist and vaguely mention that Roethlisberger has “made some mistakes.”

The first “mistake” occurred in 2008 when Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault by Andrea McNulty, then an employee of a Lake Tahoe hotel and casino. McNulty said she was lured to his hotel room under the guise of fixing a broken television. Her complaint alleges that Roethlisberger blocked the door when she tried to leave. According to the lawsuit the quarterback grabbed her and then tried to kiss her. Roethlisberger denied the allegations and never faced any criminal charges. He reached an out of court settlement with McNulty in 2011.

The NFL did not punish Roethlisberger. McNulty, on the other hand, was the recipient of backlash from those who did not like to think of their favorite quarterback as an alleged sexual assaulter. McNulty later suffered from depression.

In 2010, another accusation surfaced when a 20-year-old college student in Georgia claimed that Roethlisberger assaulted her in the bathroom stall of a nightclub. Her complaint alleged that Roethlisberger’s bodyguard grabbed the woman’s arm and escorted her to a hallway where the quarterback was waiting with “his penis out of his pants.” She says he went on to rape her and a subsequent medical examination of the woman found “superficial laceration and bruising and slight bleeding in the genital area” although no semen was detected. The case was dropped after authorities cited insufficient evidence. Roethlisberger was questioned by just one police officer who coincidentally had asked Roethlisberger to pose for a photo earlier that night and allegedly later described the accuser as a “drunken bitch”.

The NFL finally swooped in with a six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy but later reduced it to four games for “good behavior.” Yes, an accused rapist received the same punishment from the league as Tom Brady for releasing air from footballs.

Roethlisberger already had a history of reckless behavior, most notably when he crashed his motorcycle in 2006, suffering serious facial injuries. He was not wearing a helmet and it was reported that he did not have a valid license at the time of the crash.

By the time of his suspension, many in the Steelers organization had tired of Roethlisberger’s behavior. One of the team’s other star players, receiver Hines Ward, said the NFL suspension was “justified”, adding: “When you’re in the quarterback position, everybody looks to you and there are certain situations you can’t put yourself in.”

Since then Roethlisberger has stayed out of trouble. He married in 2011 and is a father of three. And he went on to win a lot more football games, an achievement that was more than enough for many fans to forget about his past.

Roethlisberger is, of course, not the only alleged rapist to be embraced by his team’s fanbase. But there’s something especially difficult to swallow as we consider him as a player and person. When we consider that the quarterback is supposed to be the ultimate leader. From a talent standpoint, the Steelers have been lucky to have a future Hall of Famer under center for so many years. But that same future Hall of Famer is far luckier that the actions he’s accused of didn’t ruin him.

Roethlisberger was accused before Ray Rice punched his wife on camera and the league was forced to pretend it cares about its players’ behavior off the field. What if these accusations had come out during the more recent #MeToo movement? There are a variety of sliding doors scenarios that could have led to us bidding adieu to Big Ben years ago. But instead we’ve had 18 years of Roethlisberger – glorious for some, uncomfortable and infuriating for many.

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