Roethlisberger in the Super Bowl: a bad thing for the NFL?

On TMZ Monday, actor Jeremy Piven can be seen griping about the Super Bowl XLV matchup. He would have preferred Jets vs. Bears, and goes on to lament a matchup he labels as "Rapist-berger vs. Cheeseheads."

Now, I don't care what Jeremy Piven thinks about the Super Bowl. Nothing personal, but he's got his reasons for watching or not watching the game, and I've got mine. We probably don't have a lot in common as football fans.

But the sentiment he's expressing, I don't believe is an uncommon one. The Super Bowl is for casual viewers -- the people who watch because watching is what people do. Like Jeremy Piven, probably.

Most viewers don't care that the actual football itself promises to be epic. The general public isn't moved by Ben Roethlisberger's(notes) ability to keep a play alive vs. Green Bay's ability to hack down a quarterback. Most casual viewers don't care that Aaron Rodgers(notes) has the hottest arm in the game and now has to overcome Troy Polamalu(notes) and James Harrison(notes).

What casual viewers do care about, though, is Roethlisberger's history of being accused of (but never charged with) sexual assault.

Here we are, at the beginning of Super Bowl week, and the words "rape," "rapist" and a host of other terms just as unimaginative as Piven's are seeing some heavy mileage.

At least, that's been my experience, and apparently that of Jeremy Piven's pals, too. I'm guessing it's been the same for a lot of people.

How big of a concern is that for the NFL? Does it worry about the negative publicity inspired by Roethlisberger's presence? Is this a bad thing for the sport of football?

The one thing we know the NFL loves is a non-controversial, sterilized, tame atmosphere. If you celebrate a touchdown by pretending the football is a pillow, you get hit with a fine. If your socks are the wrong color or worn at an unacceptable height, you get hit with a fine. Everyone falls in line. Everyone has to be the perfect little Stepford football player. There is no room for individuality.

Things about the Super Bowl that it can control, the NFL makes as bland as it can. Commercials that take even a moderately controversial stance get rejected. The meetings to decide who gets to play the halftime show, I picture being run by Lieutenant Steven Hauk.

Discussion of a social issue or even cheap jokes about it are not what the NFL wants on its Super Sunday agenda. But they are very likely to happen at your Super Bowl party.

If the public is upset about it, it's apparently not planning on showing it by withholding its viewership. Adweek expects the game to be the most-watched television program of all-time (currently, the record is held by last year's Super Bowl, which narrowly beat out the 1983 final episode of M*A*S*H*). About 110 million people are expected to watch.

Advertisers aren't afraid, either. They're still putting down $3 million for 30-second spots.

Ultimately, those are the things that count, because that's where the money comes from -- television ratings and corporate advertisers. The television audience is still growing.

I don't think the NFL would want to make a habit of having sexual assault be a common topic among Super Bowl viewers, but it's not going to hurt it financially. If it's detrimental to the league's image at all, it's no worse than any other recent off-the-field scandal through which the league has thrived.

By anything measurable, Roethlisberger's off-field problems seem to affect nothing. I don't think anyone would argue that it's good for the game, but is it bad? It's nothing the NFL can't handle.

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