Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh quarterback disgraced last spring when a 20-year-old college student accused him of sexually assaulting her in a bar, is back on the field after serving a four-game suspension, and his Steelers are an impressive 5-1. Ultimately Roethlisberger was not charged by prosecutors, but the young woman at the center of the sexual assault case wrote in a police statement that after the big-shot QB cornered her in a club bathroom, she told him “no, this is not OK,” but he had sex with her anyway, and “then left without saying anything.” The March 2010 incident occurred in Milledgeville, Georgia, the town where Flannery O’Connor lived most of her short life, raising peafowl and writing some of American literature’s most indelible and important stories.
I’ve recently been reading through O’Connor’s book of essays, Mystery and Manners, in an effort to understand how the writer might have viewed (and judged) the wayward Steelers quarterback. O’Connor, a devout Catholic, died in 1964. In her essay “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” she quips, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” This makes me wonder if and how a man like Roethlisberger might compare to O’Connor’s vision of a freak.
But when I think of the freaks in the best Flannery O’Connor stories, I realize how interesting they are, how surprising their behavior is, whereas Roethlisberger’s behavior is shocking but unfortunately not all that surprising. It’s not like Roethlisberger is the only NFL player, active or retired, who has recently been accused of sexual assault. A pro athlete using his money and fame to lure a drunken young woman into a restroom, awful as the scenario is, is also somehow becoming banal, blasé. The grotesquerie of the Roethlisberger story is limited by the booze, by the setting (a meat-market college bar), and by the odd silence of the alleged perpetrator who “left without saying anything.” Flannery O’Connor’s villains and violators are always saying something: the Bible salesman who steals a woman’s prosthetic leg tells her, just before he flees the scene, “you ain’t so smart… I been believing in nothing ever since I was born”; the woman who realizes her husband has gifted her by tattooing Jesus on his back screams “Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree!”; and the famous Misfit from “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” ends the story by telling his crony, just after they’ve murdered an annoyingly loquacious old woman, “Shut up, Bobby Lee… It’s no real pleasure in life.” Now, these are villains. And these are endings.
I doubt that Roethlisberger is an innocent man. My sympathies lie with the young woman who made that artless and quite persuasive statement to the police in Georgia last spring. Part of the story revealed by the woman’s statement is that Roethlisberger exposed himself to her before following her into the bathroom—another oddly silent expression for a man who is used to barking out orders over the roar of the crowd. This ugly episode reminds me of O’Connor’s essay “The King of the Birds,” in which she describes the peacocks that ranged around her Milledgeville farm. Probably Roethlisberger, if he did take it out of his pants that night in the club as the young woman claims in her statement, thought he was showing off something pretty special, like a proud bird unfurling a wide fan of colorful feathers. In “The King of the Birds,” O’Connor captures the beauty of the peacock’s feathery revelation like this: “Then you will see in a green-bronze arch around him a galaxy of gazing, haloed suns. This is the moment when most people are silent.”
Maybe Roethlisberger got quiet on that night in Milledgeville, Georgia because he was so proud of and amazed by his own haloed sun. But my guess is, Roethlisberger’s silence that night was not the silence of awe. In Mystery and Manners, O’Connor writes, “From my own experience in trying to make stories ‘work,’ I have discovered that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable, and I have found that, for me, this is always an action which indicates that grace has been offered.” O’Connor’s characters talk at the end because they sense that something unusual and mysterious has happened. But in the Roethlisberger story, no grace was offered or recognized or sought. There was no real ending, no epiphany of the sort that O’Connor’s characters come away with after their experiences with violence and violation. For football players, owners, coaches and fans, Big Ben is back, the Steelers are rolling, and nothing has really changed. What is there to talk about?