RENO, Nev. – In the last year, Ben Roethlisberger led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Super Bowl title and solidified his legacy as one of the game's great big-game quarterbacks.
But it's what may have happened at a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe in the summer of 2008 that is the big talk around Steelers camp as the quarterback gets ready to defend the team's championship.
A woman has filed a bombshell lawsuit saying Roethlisberger raped her in a hotel penthouse a year ago, a claim he vehemently denies. The woman never went to the authorities with her story, and it's unclear why she decided to file the lawsuit seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars a full year later.
"Ben has never sexually assaulted anyone. The timing of the lawsuit and the absence of a criminal complaint and a criminal investigation are the most compelling evidence of the absence of any criminal conduct," Roethlisberger lawyer David Cornwell said in a statement. "If an investigation is commenced, Ben will cooperate fully and Ben will be fully exonerated."
He did not immediately reply to a phone message and e-mail seeking more comment.
The stunning allegations served as a major distraction for Roethlisberger as the Steelers get ready to report to camp next week. The Steelers and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said they were looking into the allegations against Roethlisberger, who has won two Super Bowls in his five-year career and is one of the biggest names in sports.
"I don't know enough of the details, but it's a civil lawsuit. It's something that we obviously will look into," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday when asked about it in New York during an unrelated news conference. "I've been in touch with the Steelers about it."
Steelers spokesman Dave Lockett said the team was aware of the lawsuit, and "we are gathering information."
Lockett confirmed that Roethlisberger had canceled a news conference scheduled for Thursday to promote Shaquille O'Neal's new TV series that debuts Aug. 8 on ABC. Roethlisberger is one of the top athletes the NBA All-Star center intends to challenge in a series of skills tests in their respective sports.
The lawsuit seeks a minimum of $440,000 in damages from the quarterback, at least $50,000 in damages from the Harrah's officials and an unspecified amount of punitive damages "sufficient to deter" Roethlisberger and the others "from engaging in such conduct in the future." The suit alleges hotel officials for Harrah's Lake Tahoe tried to cover up the incident.
The woman's lawsuit says she didn't file a criminal complaint because she feared Harrah's would side with Roethlisberger and she would be fired.
The woman was working as an executive casino host last July when she said Roethlisberger struck up a friendly conversation at her desk during the golf tournament.
The next night, she said he telephoned her to tell her his television sound system wasn't working and asked her to look at it. She said she was unable to find a technician so she handled it herself because she had been told it was important to please the celebrities.
In Roethlisberger's room she said she determined the TV was functioning properly but as she turned to leave, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound quarterback blocked her exit, the suit claims.
The lawsuit said he grabbed her and started to kiss her. It said she was "shocked and stunned that this previously friendly man, that appeared to be a gentleman in her previous contacts with him was suddenly preventing her from leaving, was assaulting her and battering her."
She said she feared that because he was a football player he could or would physically harm her if she tried to fight him off, but that she objected and protested several times.
"But instead of stopping, Roethlisberger began fondling plaintiff through her dress and between her legs," the suit said. He then "held her against her will and physically moved plaintiff and pushed her onto his bed" where he raped her, the suit says.
She told him, "You don't want to do this," and begged him "I am not on any type of birth control."
Afterward, he asked if there was a security camera in the hallway. She said he then instructed her to claim she had repaired his television if anyone asked why she was in his room.
The lawsuit says the woman required hospitalization for treatment for depression after the alleged attack.
Efforts to reach the woman Tuesday were unsuccessful.
The woman's lawyer, Calvin R. Dunlap, declined to answer questions about the lack of a criminal complaint and why the civil action was brought a year after the incident allegedly took place.
"Neither I nor our client will be making any comment," Dunlap said in an e-mail. "We believe the matter should be resolved in court rather than in the media."
Teresa Duffy, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office in Douglas County, which includes part of Lake Tahoe, said no complaints were filed about such an incident either with sheriff's deputies or the district attorney's office.
The lawsuit also names eight Harrah's employees as defendants and alleges the cover-up involved the chief of security at Harrah's Lake Tahoe and was carried out with the knowledge of John Koster, president of Harrah's northern Nevada operations.
John Packer, spokesman for the hotel-casino, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
Harrah's Entertainment, the hotel-casino's parent company, declined comment.
"We don't comment on pending legal matters," Jacqueline Peterson said from company headquarters in Las Vegas.
Last week, Roethlisberger played in the 20th annual American Century Celebrity Golf Tournament at Lake Tahoe, finishing tied for 30th in the field of 89 golfers. It was not immediately known if he stayed at Harrah's.