Any NFL player should know by now that there are two judicial systems: One is the set of laws that govern this country. The other has to do with the perceptions and whims of Roger Goodell.
Goodell suspended Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for six games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. There’s a possibility of the suspension being reduced to four games if a review before the season indicates he has made sufficient progress in his behavior.
That judgment, of course, will be made by Goodell.
The announcement came on the league’s website. It included the stipulation that Roethlisberger “must undergo a comprehensive behavioral evaluation by medical professionals.” (Excerpts of Goodell’s letter to Roethlisberger is below.)
In Goodell’s view, it doesn’t matter that Roethlisberger has been twice accused but never charged with sexual assault. A long pattern of negative behavior — some of which was detailed in the GBI’s investigation into the rape claims by a 20-year-old college student in Milledgeville – left the commissioner with no choice.
That’s right: no choice.
Goodell long ago established that the bar on the NFL’s personal conduct policy is set high. He runs the league the way the guy on the corner runs his bagel shop. Significant circumstantial evidence of public lewd behavior would get anybody fired in their profession. Why should it be different for an NFL quarterback?
Roethlisberger’s behavior in Milledgeville was publicly criticized by district attorney Fred Bright, even while Bright admitted he couldn’t prove the allegations in a courtroom. But the near-600 page investigative report spoke volumes. That’s enough for Goodell.
As he said in his letter to Roethlisberger, “… the extensive investigatory record shows that you contributed to the irresponsible consumption of alcohol by purchasing … alcoholic beverages for underage college students, at least some of whom were likely already intoxicated. There is no question that the excessive consumption of alcohol that evening put the students and yourself at risk. The Personal Conduct Policy also states that discipline is appropriate for conduct that ‘undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL players.’ By any measure, your conduct satisfies that standard.”
A defense attorney would have a field day with this. But it’s not a defense attorney’s league. Roethlisberger damaged the Pittsburgh Steelers in the same way Michael Vick damaged the Falcons and Adam “Pacman” Jones damaged the Tennessee Titans. When NFL franchises are damaged, so is the league. Goodell lives to protect the shield.
Goodell set the standard with Vick, Jones and Cincinnati’s Chris Henry. In each case, the players were either suspended or told to stay away from training camp before the legal system ran its course. He couldn’t back off now.
When he told Vick not to report to training camp in the summer of 2007 — while Vick was still denying the felony dog-fighting allegations — Goodell released a statement, reading: “While it is for the criminal justice system to determine your guilt or innocence, it is my responsibility as commissioner of the National Football League to determine whether your conduct, even if not criminal, nonetheless violated league policies, including the Personal Conduct Policy.” (Vick ultimately was suspended for up to the first six games of last season but that was reduced to two games.)
As I wrote the other day, to not suspend Roethlisberger would’ve furthered a race debate among some fans and some of the league’s African American players who believe Goodell is harder on blacks than whites. By suspending the two-time, Super-Bowl-winning white quarterback from arguably the league’s premier franchise, that argument is over.
So, too, should any question about the standard Goodell is trying to set.
EXCERPTS OF GOODELL’S LETTER TO ROETHLISBERGER
“The Personal Conduct Policy makes clear that I may impose discipline ‘even where the conduct does not result in conviction of a crime’ as, for example, where the conduct ‘imposes inherent danger to the safety and well being of another person. As the District Attorney concluded, the extensive investigatory record shows that you contributed to the irresponsible consumption of alcohol by purchasing [or facilitating the purchase of] alcoholic beverages for underage college students, at least some of whom were likely already intoxicated. There is no question that the excessive consumption of alcohol that evening put the students and yourself at risk. The Personal Conduct Policy also states that discipline is appropriate for conduct that ‘undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL players.’ By any measure, your conduct satisfies that standard.
“I recognize that the allegations in Georgia were disputed and that they did not result in criminal charges being filed against you. My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor. That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans.
“Your conduct raises sufficient concerns that I believe effective intervention now is the best step for your personal and professional welfare.
“I believe it is essential that you take full advantage of the resources available to you. My ultimate disposition in this matter will be influenced by the extent to which you do so, what you learn as a result, and a demonstrated commitment to making positive change in your life.
“In your six years in the NFL, you have first thrilled and now disappointed a great many people. I urge you to take full advantage of this opportunity to get your life and career back on track.”
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