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Is Santonio Holmes Paying for Ben Roethlisberger’s Sins?

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For a week now, the New York sports press has been displaying its bafflement over how the Jets could have snagged such a prize as wide receiver Santonio Holmes at such a bargain price (just a fifth round pick in this year’s draft).

The answer became clearer with this morning’s announcement that both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the National Football League will, as USA Today‘s headline phrased it, “Jointly Punish QB” — i.e. Ben Roethlisberger.

Though a district attorney in Georgia made it clear he would not file criminal charges against Big Ben (in connection with a sexual assault complaint filed March 5 by a female college student), Roethlisberger will not escape punishment in some form by both the team and the league. The big question is what form the punishment will take and how severe it will be. The Steelers, founded, owned, and operated by the legendary Art Rooney for 55 years, until his death in 1988, has always been the most squeaky clean family enterprise in all of sports, passionately protective of its image as a bastion of the community.

Clearly, the current team president, Dan Rooney, son of Art, has some image restoring to do in Roethlisberger’s case. But Rooney’s statement, released late yesterday, indicates that whatever punishment is meted out to the QB won’t be that tough. “After imposing an appropriate level of discipline and outlining the steps we feel will be necessary to be a successful player and person, we intend to allow Ben the opportunity to prove to that he is the teammate and citizen [sic] we all believe he is capable of becoming.” As Roethlisberger is already working out with the team, we suspect that a year’s suspension isn’t likely — look for a tearful public apology, a fine, and perhaps some community service.

The real fall guy in the Steelers re-imaging appears to be Holmes.

I may be alone on this, but it seems to me that Holmes got the bum’s rush from the New York media when his trade to New York was announced last Sunday night. While Holmes’s rap sheet isn’t exactly as clean as Tim Tebow’s, it isn’t O.J. Simpson’s either, and the indignation from the local media is hardly justified. To take the charges one at a time:

  • He was arrested in 2006 for disorderly conduct in a hotel; the charges were dropped after he paid a small fine. Also in 2006, he was arrested in Columbus, Ohio, for domestic violence (a misdemeanor); he appeared in court shortly after for a pretrial regarding both that charge and a traffic ticket. After Holmes pleaded no-contest to the ticket, the woman named in the assault case requested that those charges be dropped. The local prosecutor refused, and in a subsequent hearing, after the woman pleaded again that the charges be dropped, they finally were.
  • In October, 2008, Holmes was arrested in Pittsburgh for possession of marijuana (another misdemeanor). Stupid, sloppy, irresponsible, yes, but at this point in his career are we really going to make federal case out of that?
  • In March, 2010, a civil lawsuit was filed against Holmes in which a woman alleged that he threw a bottle at her at an Orlando nightclub, cutting her above the eye. Subsequently, a witness for Holmes came forward and said it was he and not Holmes who threw the bottle. This seems to be the most serious charge against Holmes to date, but what it signifies isn’t clear.

While we wait for Holmes’s legal problems to sort themselves out, there’s the question of how they might impact his new team, at least after he suits up five games into the season. (He is suspended four games by the NFL for violating their substance abuse policies.) The question of “chemistry” was even being bandied about; Rich Cimini in Monday’s Daily News, for instance:

“Chemistry still matters in football, and the Jets have tinkered with theirs in a big way.” Cimini quotes one player, who — of course — asked to remain anonymous, “You can’t buy chemistry.”

Nor, in sports terms, can you define it. In the world of science, chemistry is precise: You add this with that, you get this. When used by sportswriters and fans, though, the term seems to suggest something more akin to alchemy. Whatever Holmes has actually done off the field or will do in the future — and I’m betting that if anyone can bring him into line, it’s Rex Ryan — you can’t really make a case that he hurt his old team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. After all, he led the NFL in yards/reception in 2007, was the MVP of the 2008 Super Bowl, and last year caught 79 passes. He was consistently ranked as one of the two or three most valuable players on the Steelers. How good is that chemistry?

Why, then, was Pittsburgh willing to let him go so cheaply? The simplest answer appears to be that in the wake of the Roethlisberger scandal, Pittsburgh’s front office chose to make a public display of their commitment to family values by getting rid of one of their problem children — the less valuable one. Contrary to the New York media, Pittsburgh’s former problem child may be the missing element in Rex Ryan’s Super Bowl formula.

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