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If you really want to have your sensibilities twisted up in a knot, try listening to sports talk radio when the topic of discussion is some player’s malfeasance. The current version of that particular play has to do with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s treatment of a 20 year old woman who was intoxicated at a bar.

I’ve now heard this conversation multiple times on various shows. The great interest, of course, is focused on whether the alleged bad behavior will affect the quarterback’s career. What will the NFL do? Will he be suspended? Will the Steelers perhaps lose a few games as a consequence?

The point that callers and some hosts keep returning to is this: Is there an NFL rule that has been broken? If there is not a specific rule against this behavior, then how can the commissioner do anything?

This is a mistake people often make. Contra Aquinas and Martin Luther King, Jr., many people are obsessed with what the law and official rules as the arbiters of right and wrong. No. Human laws and rules are merely instruments by which we attempt to give life to our understandings of right and wrong. They are not, themselves, ultimacies. Laws and rules can be wrong. They can be unjust. What if there were an NFL rule encouraging quarterbacks to take advantage of intoxicated women? Would that make Roethlisberger’s conduct righteous? Should he then receive an award for fulfilling the rule very well? Would the existence of such a rule cause us to endorse such behavior?

The question for us as fans is not whether Roethlisberger broke a rule or regulation. The question is whether he did something wrong. And if he did, he may have injured a young woman, himself, his team, and his league in the process. That might require some action by those who employ him to demonstrate their commitment to justice and correction. If they do otherwise, they send the message that they don’t care and that they find his qualities as a man, outside of leading a football team on the field, irrelevant. If that is what we believe, then we merely think of human beings as cogs in a machine designed to fulfill a function. As long as they fulfill that function, nothing else matters. Is that what we think about people? Are people just things we use?

To obsess about the rulebook is to leave aside the ability to engage in moral judgment. Moral judgment makes us human.

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