In the end, there probably wasn’t a punishment that quite fit Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
So the NFL probably shouldn’t have even bothered. If the legal system couldn’t figure it out, what hope do they have?
Still, the league foolishly pressed forward: NFL commissioner Roger Goddell suspended Roethlisberger for six games and ordered him to undergo “comprehensive behavioral counseling” for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy in connection with a sexual assault allegation.
Is that enough? Or too much? I will entertain almost any argument on this point, ranging from a year-long suspension (or even more) to no punishment at all.
But really, it depends what you think Roethlisberger did – if anything, really – in the nightclub bathroom with that 20-year-old college student last month. And obviously, the NFL thinks something happened – otherwise there would be no need for a suspension and all the stern warnings.
Here’s what happened that night, according to his accuser:
In a statement to police on March 5, the young woman said Roethlisberger encouraged her and her friends to do numerous shots. Then one of his bodyguards escorted her into a hallway at the Capital City nightclub, sat her on a stool and left. She said Roethlisberger walked down the hallway and exposed himself.
“I told him it wasn’t OK, no, we don’t need to do this and I proceeded to get up and try to leave,” she said, according to the police documents. “I went to the first door I saw, which happened to be a bathroom.”
According to her statement, Roethlisberger then followed her into the bathroom and shut the door.
“I still said no, this is not OK, and he then had sex with me,” she wrote. “He said it was OK. He then left without saying anything.”
While that all seems pretty damning, it’s important to remember that Roethlisberger was neither arrested nor charged in this case. And he has been neither arrested nor charged in connection with a civil lawsuit filed against him by a former Nevada hotel employee for an alleged sexual assault in 2008.
Yet, Roethlisberger became the first NFL player to be suspended under the personal-conduct policy while never having been charged with a crime.
If you want, we can talk about whether or not the NFL commissioner should possess so much latitude in meting out punishment of his players. I don’t think so. But that’s not what I want to focus on here.
I’m left to consider only two real possibilities when it comes to Roethlisberger: either he’s one of the unluckiest sonofabitches around or the NFL has legitimate concerns that one of its premier players is a sexual predator.
And if the latter is true, then six games isn’t nearly enough punishment.
In the past month or so, I’ve seen and heard any number of simple-minded analysis about the cure for Roethlisberger’s problems. One nationally-syndicated radio host declared that Roethlisberger is immature and needs only to stay out of nightclubs. Jason Whitlock wrote some rape apologist bullshit (but what else is new?). Over and over and over and over again, columnists and other talking heads mused about Roethlisberger needing to “grow up.”
As if maturity is the panacea for alleged predators.
tyduffy over at The Big Lead had it right on this point:
The accusation was sexual assault. That’s not a boyish transgression. … It’s not an issue of developing fully and becoming an adult. It’s an adult that developed pervertedly. Ben Roethlisberger is affable. He has a hokey charm. His football accomplishments are great. It may be a better story to believe he’s a good guy, led astray and capable of reform, but it’s time to admit that may not be the truth.
This seems to be what people are missing. Let’s say you really believe Roethlisberger has a serious problem with aggressive – and possibly illegal – sexual behavior. Well, that’s not simply a matter of growing up. He could just as easily sexually abuse a woman from the comfort of his own home.
Staying out of nightclubs isn’t going to keep him from being a predator, if that’s what he is.
So that brings us back to the league’s punishment (because I believe it should be difficult to legally convict people of serious crimes). If he’s not guilty of sexual assault, what is he guilty of?
Goddell mentions Roethlisberger’s “conduct” a number of times in the letter announcing the suspension. But what conduct is he talking about? Goddell suggests it might be for buying underage women shots of tequila. Or maybe because Roethlisberger embarrassed the league. Or because lots of people wanted to see him punished.
That’s the coward’s way out. If the NFL wants to hold its employees to a higher standard than the law, then they need to be explicit about how they determine that standard and the punishment that follows.
If the NFL thinks Roethlisberger is innocent, treat him accordingly. And if the NFL thinks Roethlisberger is a rapist, they should say so.
And then punish him accordingly.