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At best, Big Ben's image is shot

Eighty-eight yards from the end zone, with two and a half minutes remaining in Super Bowl XLIII, Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers on one of the great, game-winning drives in football history.

Of course, he had more than a little help from his receiver, Santonio Holmes, who accounted, quite acrobatically, for 73 of those yards. But in a larger sense, the game conferred a special -- potentially immortal -- status on a quarterback who had grown up idolizing John Elway. If Roethlisberger, who wears No. 7 in Elway's honor, was big, occasionally reckless, prone to both improvisational magnificence and mishaps, he was also, undoubtedly, a winner.

It's worth noting that Elway didn't win a Super Bowl until his fourth try, when he was 36. Roethlisberger, on the other hand, was 23 when he won his first, the youngest starting quarterback to win one. By 27, he added a game-winning drive to his Super Bowl resume.

But now, just a week removed from his 28th birthday, you are again reminded that all the winning bestows no special status beyond the white lines. The ability to maintain composure in those final, frantic seconds of a ballgame is, unfortunately, no harbinger of one's dignity as a man. With a civil lawsuit for sexual assault already pending, Roethlisberger finds himself the subject of a criminal investigation for the same alleged offense.

And the best thing you can say here is that Big Ben's a big dope, a jackass who has jeopardized his precious beef-jerky endorsement.

Next best? His conduct deserves the strictest scrutiny under commissioner Goodell's "zero-tolerance" policy.

But there's another possible outcome: indictment. Criminal charges might finally settle the debate as to whether white quarterbacks and black quarterbacks are held to different standards by the press and the public. (Hey, if there was evidence to believe Michael Vick was a thug -- even before the dog-fighting charges -- there's enough to consider Roethlisberger a lout).

But it won't get to that point, at least not according to the assurances issued Monday by his lawyer, the inestimable Ed Garland. "No sexual assault occurred," said Garland. " . . . The truth of the events should cause this investigation to end without a criminal charge."

The NFL has been very good to Garland. His clients have included Ray Lewis (whose murder charge was busted down to a misdemeanor after he ratted out his friends), Jamal Lewis (who did a mere four months for his role in a major-weight federal drug case), and Pacman Jones (who received a suspended sentence and 200 hours of community service after being charged with two felonies for a strip-club altercation that left a man paralyzed).

That's good news for Roethlisberger, the defendant. But what of the Super Bowl hero?

I think that guy's done. Again, let's take the best-case scenario. I'm not saying Roethlisberger is a rapist. I just know that, at some level, he suffers from the same malady that affected Garland's other clients: a star ballplayer's sense of entitlement.

To this point, the most damning testimony to Roethlisberger's image has come from Amber Hanley, a 21-year-old student at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Ga. She had the privilege of meeting him in the VIP area of Capital City, a local club, last Thursday night.

From the AP: "She said she asked the quarterback to take a photo with her friend, who was a fan, but he seemed disappointed that's all she wanted. Hanley said she rolled her eyes, and Roethlisberger called her an expletive and walked away. Later, Roethlisberger was aggressively hitting on another girl, Hanley said."

Doesn't take much to imagine what that expletive was. The story has a ring of truth, no?

Later still, a 20-year-old sophomore claimed she was assaulted by Roethlisberger, who had been to at least one other bar that night, in a bathroom at the club.

Again, as it's not my job to indict the guy, I'll assume the very best. So here's a guy who has been a full-blown celebrity for at least five years. The period of his fame coincides with the age of cell-phone cameras and the like.

But it seems to serve no warning. In fact, by now you may be acquainted with the candid shot of Roethlisberger with a T-shirt that reads: "DRINK LIKE A CHAMPION." The hottie next to him is smiling, but Big Ben can barely open his eyes. His is the unmistakable look of a slob.

Two Super Bowl rings. A $102 million contract. And he's still doing shots with college kids. Way to go, champ.