Tell the truth. When you first heard about the civil lawsuit against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger because of an alleged sexual assault at a Lake Tahoe resort in Nevada a year ago, your primary concern really wasn't for Big Ben, who might be the victim of a setup by a woman looking to make a small fortune off his name. Nor was your concern for the woman, who, if the allegations are true, suffered unimaginable violence. No, you worried about the Steelers: What impact will all of this have on the team's chances of defending its Super Bowl title?
Well, I'm here to tell you this morning.
That isn't to say it's a good thing to be discussing sexual assault charges only days before the Steelers report to training camp. Hardly. This is a time when we should be looking at Roethlisberger and reliving yet again his wondrous touchdown pass to wide receiver Santonio Holmes to win Super Bowl XLIII. We shouldn't have to look at him and be forced to wonder: "Did he do it or not?" But that doesn't mean this incident has to sabotage the Steelers' season. Under no circumstances should it be considered an excuse for failure -- Roethlisberger's or the team's.
That goes back to something Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told the Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette a month ago, before the allegations against Roethlisberger made the national news: "If you are going to be good, distractions are a part of it."
Overcoming them certainly are.
This is a big distraction, no doubt. Everybody is going to have questions for Tomlin and his players about Roethlisberger when they gather for camp in Latrobe next Friday. Tomlin figures to be typically aggressive, bringing up the subject before he is asked about it, making a really brief statement and then announcing he won't have additional comment until the situation is resolved. The players' answers also are fairly predictable: "We don't know what happened, so what are we supposed to say? All we know is that Ben is our quarterback -- our leader -- and we support him fully. We're all here to play football."
And so they will.
It won't be easy for him. Even if he didn't commit the assault, he already has lost plenty just because his name has been linked to something horrible. He certainly looked terrible yesterday -- worse than on even his worst days against the Baltimore Ravens -- when he read a brief statement to the media at the Steelers' South Side headquarters, calling the allegations "reckless" and "outrageous" and saying he will "fight to protect my family and my reputation."
But Roethlisberger has attorneys to fight that fight. He knows his job is to play football. That's why the Steelers gave him an eight-year, $102 million contract before last season. The Rooneys and Tomlin are counting on him. His teammates are counting on him. And, yes, Steelers Nation is counting on him.
So Roethlisberger will play.
I'm guessing he will be terrific again.
The truly great ones -- Big Ben clearly is among them and seems headed toward the Hall of Fame -- have the rare ability to set aside all distractions and focus on the task at hand. Their mental toughness is extraordinary. Roethlisberger didn't flinch in the paralyzing chaos near the end of Super Bowl XLIII when he threw that touchdown pass to Holmes to beat the Arizona Cardinals. There's no reason to think he'll flinch now.
Roethlisberger won't just have the support of Tomlin, who stood behind him when he read his statement, and his teammates. He'll have the support of Steelers fans everywhere. I'm thinking, oh, maybe 99 percent believe his story in this "he said, she said" ugliness. That's what fans do, right? They support one of their own, especially if he's a Super Bowl hero.
Roethlisberger should feel some of that love tonight when he makes his first real public appearance since the allegations. He is scheduled to be at Ambridge High School's Moe Rubenstein Stadium to tape "Shaq Vs.," a new ABC reality television show starring NBA great Shaquille O'Neal. Attendance will be limited to about 7,500.
Two things you can count on:
1) Authorities will have to turn people away from the gates.
2) Big Ben will be wildly applauded.
In this town, the man will not be booed without proof of the assault. At least not until he starts throwing interceptions.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .