NFL's Policy Leaves Them No Choice With Ben Roethlisberger

Commissioner has punished players without legal rulings in the past

By Josh Alper
|  Wednesday, Apr 21, 2010  |  Updated 10:41 AM CDT
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Mug Shots: Athletes Who Have Run Afoul of The Law

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

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Ben Roethlisberger is heading to a meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in New York knowing that he isn't going to be prosecuted in relation to what went on in a Georgia bar in March. He's hardly making the trip without baggage, however.

Milledgeville, GA District Attorney Fred Bright was very careful in laying out the facts of the case to make it clear that he wasn't avoiding a trial simply because of Roethlisberger's celebrity. The story Bright told was damning to Roethlisberger: Apparently not enough for Bright to feel confident about getting a conviction, but enough to make sure that this story won't be forgotten with a little bit of time and distance.

Tuesday morning brought more unsavory allegations to the public's attention and all of that, plus the Tahoe case from 2009, will be following Big Ben into the conference room where Goodell is waiting.

When he enters that room, he'll find the commissioner painted into a corner. Roethlisberger has escaped legal penalties for any of his alleged behavior, but repeated claims of sexual misconduct put the league, the Steelers and Roethlisberger in a terrible light. That was the same rationale that led to suspensions for Pacman Jones and Larry Johnson before they'd been formally convicted of crimes and it is the linchpin of the Personal Conduct Policy that Goodell has put into place for players in the NFL.  

That's why Goodell is caught in the corner and why he's going to have to do more than simply shake his fist at Roethlisberger behind closed doors. Otherwise, he'll face questions about why Roethlisberger gets treated differently than Jones and why Goodell doesn't apply the same burdens to all players across the board. 

Simply put, if black players get treated and punished differently than white players, or if they are perceived to be treated differently, it will open up an entirely different and more uncomfortable can of worms for Goodell, team owners and the league as a whole. 

Unless the Steelers bail him out by imposing their own team suspension on Roethlisberger, Goodell has to act to keep up the appearance of fairness and accountability that he has imposed on the league and the players since taking office.

Goodell could have avoided all of this by simply employing a system that only punished players as a result of criminal conviction, something that would have thrilled many players and the union, but he chose a more arbitrary track. He can't pull the brakes simply because Roethlisberger has fallen in front of the engine or the whole thing will go flying off the tracks.

Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City and is a contributor to FanHouse.com and ProFootballTalk.com in addition to his duties for NBCNewYork.com.

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