Steelers now have plenty to overcome

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What a very good thing it is that his luxuriant gift bag from the ESPYS included a pair of Quiet Comfort 3 Acoustic Noise Canceling Head Phones, because Big Ben Roethlisberger figures to be absorbing a ton of highly disagreeable noise over the coming weeks and months.

Eight days out from Steelers training camp, the psychic landscape for the team's most pivotal player and, by inescapable extension, the defending Super Bowl champions, is suddenly a morass of potential sinkholes.

In the wake of Friday's filing of a lawsuit with the Second Judicial District Court, State of Nevada, Roethlisberger will continue to play quarterback, but in his mind he'll be playing defense. No. 7 is now a defendant in a case brought by a Nevada woman alleging that Big Ben raped her at the Harrah's Lake Tahoe Resort on the night of July 11, 2008.

You'll obviously note the highly problematic distance of some 371 days between the alleged rape and the formal filing of a civil lawsuit without a criminal investigation, which so far is the public essence of Ben's defense. In a statement released Monday night, Roethlisberger's attorney, Atlanta-based David Cornwell, said as much, and little else.

"Ben has never assaulted anyone," Cornwell said, "especially [the plaintiff]."

Especially?

Cornwell ostensibly chooses his lawyerly words carefully, so that's not as benign a non sequitur as, "I never eat vegetables, especially peppers." No, "especially [the plaintiff]" borders on nastiness, which made the entire statement sound a little too strident for someone defending an NFL star with nothing to worry about.

Still, it was positively judicious compared to the cretinous ramblings available on the Internet regarding the plaintiff, who seeks restitution of nearly half a million dollars for a series of hospital stays triggered by the alleged incident.

That the suit cites Roethlisberger with a laundry list of alleged misbehaviors down to and including keeping a messy hotel room says nothing of the plaintiff's desperation or veracity, just as inferred defiance from Cornwell brings us no closer to the truth, either. Resolution likely looms somewhere on the other side of Super Bowl XLIV, and the prospect of Mike Tomlin's team being part of that event did not exactly escalate with the logging in of Nevada's Case No. CV09-02222.

One hundred percent not guilty or guilty as charged on all counts, Ben now has what the sports media love to call "legal woes." It's a weird little construction, but it's an important threshold.

If something sinister happened between Roethlisberger and a Harrah's concierge hostess on the 17th floor of that hotel last summer, its psychological impact on the quarterback was clearly insignificant, or at least insignificant enough that he subsequently led the Steelers to a second Lombardi Trophy in four years, insignificant enough that his nerves were sufficiently steady to throw the winning touchdown pass in the final minute on the most overlit stage a sports-crazed culture can erect.

But that was before legal woes, which are a kind of minimal sentence in themselves and clearly a potential distraction for something so interlocked as the emotional profile of a professional football team. The Steelers won't be at Latrobe 10 minutes next Friday before someone asks what the effect of Ben's legal woes might be. I would put the over/under on the number of starters who'll be asked some version of that very thing by Aug. 1 at 19.

Coaches see virtually everything from the dew point to the hair color of the backup center's wife as a potential distraction, so the tendency to overstate the impact of Ben's situation is almost reflexive. But don't misunderstand. Ben's officially a distraction, but he's not Terrell Owens, not Chad Ocho Cinco, not Brett Favre, any of whom can pull a team apart over any perceived slight.

It's purely coincidence, obviously, that Super Bowl victories five and six in the storied, gloried history of the Steelers were followed by convulsing episodes regarding Ben Roethlisberger -- his motorcycle accident in June 2006, and now his looming appearance on a Nevada docket.

The plaintiff's story contains many of the standard plausible elements of a combustible event -- rich, young superstar with a outsized sense of entitlement misbehaves spectacularly and expects everyone to forget about it -- but it doesn't sound like something that would include Roethlisberger. Ben is generally polite, practiced at the art of overarching humility, smarter than his years, and acutely aware of the potential import of just about everything he does. Socially, young women are magnetized to him in clumps, so it doesn't exactly follow that he would have to coerce one.

None of that says it didn't happen, just as none of it says it did.

But the psychic landscape spread in front of the 2009 Steelers won't be the same, at least until the truth arrives.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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