Ben Roethlisberger is leaving, but your opinion of him is likely here to stay

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How will you remember Ben Roethlisberger, who retired Thursday after 18 seasons in the NFL?

Will you remember him as a two-time Super Bowl champion who never once played for a losing team? Or will you remember him as a man twice accused of sexual assault? Will you remember him as a cinderblock-shaped comeback artist? Or will you remember him as the target of an NFL investigation that saw him suspended four games, despite the fact that one of the cases against him was settled and the other ended without charges being filed?

Do you believe that in the eyes of the law, Roethlisberger — like Michael Vick and the late Kobe Bryant before him — has a clear ledger? Or do you believe that some crimes transcend settlements and court filings? Is Roethlisberger innocent until proven guilty, or should he carry the burden of accusation the rest of his days?

In short: Do you judge a player by their on-field accomplishments or their off-field sins, alleged or not?

If you focus entirely and solely on Roethisberger’s playing career, he’s one of the finest quarterbacks in NFL history. He threw for more than 64,000 yards, fifth all-time in league history. He led the Steelers to the playoffs 12 of his 18 seasons. His 53 game-winning drives trail only Peyton Manning’s 54 in the entire Super Bowl era.

It's the end of the line for Ben Roethlisberger's career. (Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)
It's the end of the line for Ben Roethlisberger's career. (Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

Roethlisberger’s critics charge that viewing his career through such a narrow lens doesn’t give a full picture of the man. His detractors fill opposing stadiums and comment sections; some of the nicknames for him are too foul to even be printed here. Like Vick, Roethlisberger will always be defined by the accusations —and, in Vick’s case, the conviction — of his past.

Roethlisberger makes for an interesting comparison to Bryant, who also faced sexual assault allegations earlier in his Hall of Fame career. Like Bryant, Roethlisberger reached an undisclosed out-of-court settlement with one of his accusers, who alleged he assaulted her in a hotel room in Lake Tahoe in 2008.

The other case against Roethlisberger, involving a 20-year-old woman who met Roethlisberger in a bar in Milledgeville, Georgia in 2010, did not proceed when local authorities declined to press charges, citing a lack of evidence. (Investigators’ contemporaneous accounts of what happened between the accuser and Roethlisberger that night are harrowing.) In both instances, the accusers faced the challenge of a well-funded, heavily lawyered superstar, with all the resultant scrutiny, negative publicity and public criticism that would inevitably follow.

But Bryant studiously remade his image in the wake of his own scandal, and won two more championships, too, something Roethlisberger didn’t do. Bryant became a proud Girl Dad and a fierce advocate of women’s sports, a motivational icon for the rise-and-grind set.

As for Roethlisberger? Well, he just kept on playing football, year after year, piling up yards and playoff appearances. He wasn’t especially quotable, he didn’t lend his name to any high-profile endorsements, and he (or his social media team) blocked anyone on Twitter who even remotely criticized his play. For him, and for his supporters, stacking numbers was enough.

As the recent Baseball Hall of Fame voting made abundantly clear, a player’s legacy isn’t a universally accepted concept. Two people can look at the same set of career numbers and hold wildly divergent views about that player’s fitness for enshrinement. (This being America in 2022, each would think the other is deluded and blind, while they themselves are clear-eyed and honest.)

Roethlisberger will go into pro football’s Hall of Fame soon enough. Does he deserve the honor? Depends on whom you ask, but chances are, their mind isn’t going to change between now and then. Everyone has to decide for themselves whether they judge a player by his accomplishments or his actions. Where do you fall?

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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