Before the Pittsburgh Penguins home game against the New York Rangers on March 29, the team took to the ice for warmups wearing jerseys honoring a person twice accused of sexual assault. Photographs lit up social media with the arena floor full of players wearing the accused’s name and number across their backs. The aforementioned honoree then was welcomed onto the arena floor, where he dropped a ceremonial puck before Pens’ captain Sidney Crosby.
The hot mess of a night, dubbed “The Pittsburgh BENguins” on the official NHL team blog, was honoring former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who announced his retirement on Jan. 27, much to the thrill of locals like myself who believed they were finally free of seeing his name in headlines.
Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault twice during his career as a Pittsburgh Steeler. In July 2009, he was accused of raping a woman in his Nevada hotel room in 2008. The case was later settled out of court in January 2012, according to ESPN. In 2010, another woman accused him of raping her in a bathroom stall in a Georgia nightclub. The alleged victim decided not to prosecute, but according to VICE magazine, a lawyer said that "she was not recanting her accusation but rather was afraid that the trial would be 'a very intrusive personal experience' due to the 'extraordinary media attention' it would receive." Ben denied both of these accusations, but after the second incident, he was suspended from multiple Steelers games for violating the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy.
Penguins all wearing Ben Roethlisberger No. 7 jersey. Never seen anything like that https://t.co/YLdQ3cI7DL— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) March 29, 2022
The Penguins have made recent great strides in working to become more inclusive. In a professional American sport well-known for a lack of racial diversity, Pittsburgh’s team has added numerous inspirational programs, including virtual programming focused on "elevating Black leaders and change-makers" during Black History Month and opening an academy offering free training and support to local Black youth hockey players and their families. Earlier in March, they also hosted a women's panel, including panelist Tracey McCants Lewis, the Penguins’ vice president of Human Resources, who Pittsburgh City Paper interviewed for a Black-led Community Spotlight in 2021, as part of a Leading & Inspiring Females to Thrive program.
This is why it’s confusing that they would choose to honor a controversial figure known as widely for his past sexual assault allegations as his performance on the field, especially during Women’s History Month.
It should be noted that multiple media outlets reported that the crowd at the arena cheered for the players wearing No. 7 and for Roethlisberger, but that’s no surprise.
According to the NHL blog, "Ben walked the black carpet with a smile on his face and his fist pumping in the air as the fans in attendance greeted him with a standing ovation."
Because until people start respecting community members as much as they idolize sports stars, the Steel City will continue to wave their Terrible Towels, not just for the team but for whatever player is performing well during a game, no matter how poorly they perform off the field and how many alleged victims they leave behind.
It’s time to let Roethlisberger retire, not just from the game, but from the spotlight. The Pens ended up losing the game to the Rangers, but it wasn’t the biggest loss of the night. They also lost some integrity.