Celizic: Innocent until proven guilty, except in NFL

By Mike Celizic
|  Tuesday, Mar 23, 2010  |  Updated 9:30 PM CDT
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[NATL] Innocent Until Proven Guilty, Except in NFL

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Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been accused of sexual assault for the second time.

The reports grow more ominous as quickly as the bloggers can file their updates. Ben Roethlisberger, who has yet to be charged with any crime, could be on his way to a suspension.

That came down during the afternoon from ESPN. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could take such action, according to the report. And if Goodell does, maybe the Steelers won’t want Roethlisberger anymore, despite the two Super Bowl rings.

Am I the only one who thinks something is amiss here? Not to put too fine a point on it, but Big Ben hasn’t even been charged with a crime yet. There is an ongoing investigation and an accusation, but that isn’t the same as a conviction.

I’m not making light of the situation. Roethlisberger is in serious trouble. There’s no question about that. A 20-year-old college student says he sexually assaulted her in the bathroom of a bar in Georgia. If true, it is an ugly and vile crime and he should do time for it. But it remains an allegation, not a fact.

And we’ve had these situations before. We had Kobe Bryant convicted and in jail before the sexual assault case against him was dropped. We had the Duke lacrosse team doing hard time before their accuser’s story disintegrated. Bryant overcame the negative publicity. The lacrosse team never got the year they lost back.

We said we’d never leap to judgment again in one of these cases, but here we are discussing whether Roethlisberger should be suspended for something he may not have done.

Exacerbating his situation is the fact that the Steeler quarterback was hit with a similar allegation two years ago in Nevada. Criminal charges were never filed, and the woman in that case is suing him. When you get charged twice with engaging in the same behavior, it doesn’t look good.

And most people would agree that it looks as if Roethlisberger needs to change his behavior. Guys who get multiple sexual assault charges lodged against them are doing something wrong. Whether their behavior is criminal or not, it’s not gentlemanly.

But there is a difference between being accused and being guilty, between being a boorish lout and a criminal. That’s the foundation of our legal system: innocent until proven guilty. That principle should count for something in life, too.

And it should count for something in sports.

It’s not clear it does anymore, not if Goodell is, as the rumors say, contemplating either suspending Roethlisberger or ordering him into some sort of treatment program. Either way, the commissioner would be showing the public that the NFL does not tolerate treating women badly.

If what it takes to protect the image is suspending a star player, that’s what the commissioner will do. In such cases, the facts are almost irrelevant. It’s all about how the league is perceived.

It’s much like all those zero-tolerance policies in our schools. A kid with a half-inch long toy gun — or a crude drawing of a gun — is treated the same as a kid with a real gun.

We’re rapidly approaching that same point in sports, where rumor and image matter more than evidence and truth, where perception is the same as reality.

The perception of Ben Roethlisbeger is that he forces his attentions on women, drinks too much and hangs out in the wrong places. None of these are admirable traits. So far, though, none of them has been shown in court to be criminal.

So, as bad as things look for Big Ben, he’s never been convicted or even charged with a crime. The Georgia case is being investigated, and criminal charges could well be filed. But that still isn’t the same as a conviction, no matter how many gossip sites say it is.

There’s a reason why our legal system is based on a presumption of innocence. It’s because our gossip system is based on a presumption of guilt.

In Roethlisberger’s case, the assumption is he’s guilty of something, and that’s enough. In the court of public opinion, he’s all but convicted.

I’m under no delusion that Ben Roethlisberger is a pillar of society. And I don’t think superstars should get special treatment because they’re more talented than mere mortals.

But I don’t think he or anyone else in his situation should be suspended. We’ve seen often enough before that these accusations don’t always turn out to be true. And a louse shouldn’t be punished for something he didn’t do.

We have a legal process. Let it run its course.

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