ARLINGTON, Texas — Do you believe in his smile?
Ben Roethlisberger stares into the coverage, and time after time, he shows his teeth. He dodges a question, and he grins. He sidesteps another, and he grins. He praises a teammate, and he grins.
There is nothing particularly warm about the smile, mind you, and nothing particularly friendly. It is a car salesman's smile, a politician's smile, a defense attorney's smile. As facial expressions go, it is a smile that acts as a punctuation mark. His answer is over, feel free to try again. And he smiles.
Do you believe in his words?
The Steelers quarterback spent most of Tuesday morning's Super Bowl media day saying as little as possible about his league suspension following an accusation of sexual assault. Every now and then he would talk about faith, and about family, and about achieving inner peace. It seemed a little rehearsed, as if had spent the past week in front of a mirror and being coached by a public relations expert.
Most of all, do you believe in his heart?
In the attempted rehabilitation of Roethlisberger's reputation, this is the only question that matters. When Roethlisberger says he has changed, do you believe him? When he says he wants to be known as a role model, do you buy in? Do you see him as a player who has learned his lesson, or as a marketing campaign designed to cover up what happened?
In the spotlight of the moment, it seems the world is ready to love Roethlisberger again. He plays an admirable position for an admirable team, and once more he is about to play in a championship game. In our society there is no easier forgiveness than that granted to a successful celebrity.
Here, then, is the essential question of the day:
Ben, do you believe you're a good guy?
"I think so," Roethlisberger said.
Others do not seem as convinced. After commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for six games before the season (later reduced to four), there were stories that suggested Roethlisberger had never been among the most popular Steelers in the clubhouse. Even now, he says he has "worked to be a better teammate," which suggests that even he knew he had shortcomings.
Say this much for Roethlisberger. who turns 29 next month. As defensive ends across the league know, he's pretty good at sidestepping trouble. He certainly didn't seem flustered by the media-day questions. He didn't blink, he didn't sweat, he never answered a question he didn't want to answer. The more direct the questioning, the more likely he was to suggest that it was "reflective" and that "Super Bowl week isn't the time to be reflective."
Yet, Roethlisberger talked about how he wanted to be a role model to kids. He talked about how he wanted his obituary to read that he was "a guy who lived every day like it was his last." He talked about how much a cooperation award from the Pittsburgh media meant to him this season because he had been so difficult to deal with in prior years. Some reflection seemed to fit into his schedule.
Ben, what do you mean by "inner peace?"
"I think if you have it, it's an easy thing to talk about," Roethlisberger said. "When you have an understanding of what you want to do in life, that's the inner peace I'm talking about."
So what did anyone expect? A confession? Of course not. Remorse? Maybe a little. Regret? Maybe more than a little. At the very least, the descriptions of Roethlisberger's behavior have certainly painted him as a young player filled with entitlement and surrounded by an entourage.
Perhaps a little reflection would have been good for Roethlisberger. Perhaps he could have talked about his growth as a player. Perhaps he could have admitted that his foolishness left the Steelers out to dry for a month while he was suspended. As it turns out, his teammates won three out of four while he was gone, but he certainly didn't do them any favors.
Ben, are you a different guy than you were before?
"I think you always go through changes in life," Roethlisberger said "When you're faced with challenges in life, you find ways to overcome them."
No one asked about the challenges of the alleged victim. Then again, she didn't have a podium.
The thing is, this Super Bowl should be Roethlisberger's show. He has a shot at his third ring, which is Tom Brady and Troy Aikman territory (Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw won four). The questions should be about his place among the game's quarterbacks and his place in Super Bowl history. They should be chuckling when he talks about the ugly way he plays the position.
Yet, it is impossible not to wonder whether Roethlisberger has transformed or if he is running a fake. It is true that accusations don't mean guilt, but celebrity does not mean innocence, and success does not mean redemption. We may never know what happened in a bar in Milledgeville, Ga., but that doesn't mean we should stop wondering.
Is Roethlisberger a good guy or a bad one?
Just a guess here, but even those who want to believe in him are going to need a little more evidence.
Steelers vs. Packers
6:30 p.m. Sunday, Arlington, Texas. TV/radio: Ch. 13; 1010-AM Line: Packers by 21/2