Published April 13, 2010
Early Monday evening, after the world learned he would not be prosecuted for sexual assault, Ben Roethlisberger appeared in front of his locker and issued a statement that made Tiger Woods look like a master of humility and introspection.
He didn't mention his conduct or his drinking.
He said he was "truly sorry," but not for what.
He said he wanted to be a leader and a "role model to kids," but didn't say how.
And, of course, he didn't take any questions.
It wasn't the kind of performance that helps a man reclaim his reputation. Even after a month-plus investigation resulted in no charges, there remain only three reasonable ways to consider Roethlisberger.
One, he's a bad guy.
Two, he's a bad guy when drunk.
Three -- and this really strains credulity -- he's as dumb as he looks.
Whichever position you take, he still deserves to be suspended. I say two regular-season games. And it would be nice -- not to mention useful -- to see the Steelers themselves -- read: those righteous Rooney heirs -- mete out the punishment. If not, let that responsibility fall, as usual, to the NFL commissioner.
"We do not prosecute morals," Fred Bright, district attorney for Georgia's Ocmulgee judicial district, said Monday afternoon. "We prosecute crimes."
It's a good thing, too. But Roger Goodell's NFL fancies itself much like a kosher hot dog, subject to loftier codes. From the 2009 Personal Conduct Policy:
"It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. ... You are held to a higher standard and expected to conduct yourself in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the league is based, and is lawful.
"Persons who fail to live up to this standard of conduct are guilty of conduct detrimental and subject to discipline."
Hence, the DA's decision not to prosecute Ben Roethlisberger for sexual assault isn't cause for the black and gold to rejoice. There wasn't much in the DA's news conference that came as a surprise. No one acquainted with Roethlisberger via Google images would be shocked to find the Steelers' team MVP with a young woman in what Bright termed the "small, dingy bathroom" of a college bar. The inquiry by local police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has produced a narrative that was basically everything you expected.
One the evening of March 4 and into the wee hours of March 5, Roethlisberger was out bar hopping with his entourage. The 20-year-old "victim" -- Bright's word, not mine -- was doing with the same with her sorority sisters. The two parties met at various establishments along the way, where the quarterback and the co-ed made small talk.
"Some of a sexual nature," Bright said.
Finally, at Capital City's VIP room -- not for nothing, but how many VIPs can there be in the metropolis of Milledgeville? -- Roethlisberger summoned the sorority girls and "provided shots of alcohol." Bright's account fits nicely with an earlier report quoting the two-time Super Bowl winner as saying: "All you bitches, take my shots."
"Everyone agrees," Bright said, "that the victim was highly intoxicated."
Again, I'm shocked.
Next, the prosecutor said, "one of the bodyguards guided the victim down a back hallway. Mr. Roethlisberger followed her down the hallway into a small bathroom."
She sustained a "superficial laceration and slight bleeding in the genital area." A test performed at the hospital indicated the presence of male DNA.
That's not evidence of criminal conduct, or, rather, not nearly enough evidence to prove it. And so there's no reason not to accept Bright's representation -- what happened in that dingy bathroom cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
However, the same cannot be said for Roethlisberger's behavior. Under the Personal Conduct Policy, he can be disciplined for "conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs or NFL players." Roethlisberger, who signed a $102 million contract in 2008, falls squarely in that unfortunate realm.
He'd have been better off in a standard-issue strip joint. Instead, the league has a two-time Super Bowl winner raising hell in a college town. Hustling sorority girls with tequila? And that bodyguard escort to the bathroom? Sorry, but the picture that emerges from all this is that of a sexual bully. All you bitches, take my shots! That's the face of a franchise talking, and not just any franchise, but pious Art Rooney's Steelers.
Roethlisberger's escapades might not rise to the level of criminal conduct, but beyond any reasonable doubt, they injure the integrity and reputation of the NFL and its Pittsburgh franchise. What's more, they are proof -- again, beyond any doubt -- of invincible stupidity. Remember, this is a guy who's already being sued for alleged sexual assault in Nevada.
Over the weekend, the Steelers traded Santonio Holmes to the Jets, a Super Bowl MVP for a fifth-round pick. It was seen as a "statement," proof Pittsburgh wouldn't stand for recurring incidents of bad behavior among its players. Holmes, who had a domestic violence charge dropped a few years back, now seems like a recalcitrant pot smoker. His career with the Jets will begin with a mandatory four-game suspension, meaning he's been caught violating the league's substance abuse policy three previous times.
It's worth noting Roethlisberger's misdeeds were more widely covered, and therefore, as the league might argue, more injurious to its reputation. So you can't help but ask: Is Holmes that much worse than Roethlisberger? Or is it just easier to replace a black receiver than a white franchise quarterback?
I'll concede those aren't entirely fair questions. But like the league's conduct policy, they are rooted in perception. By the way, whose misdeeds have received more coverage? Perception is reputation. And reputation is more than a man's deed. It's what he has gotten away with.
On Monday afternoon, Steelers President Art Rooney II issued a statement, saying: "During the past few weeks, I have met with Ben on a number of occasions, not only to discuss this incident, but also to discuss his commitment to making sure something like this never happens again."
A two-game suspension would be a good place to start.