It was announced on Monday that Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, will not face criminal charges after a 20-year-old college student accused him of sexually assaulting her in a nightclub restroom. But what happened in that Georgia club after a March 5 night of drinking remains a mystery.
What is fact is that this is the third time the 28-year-old Roethlisberger had put himself in a publicly awkward, possibly criminal situation. In 2008, he was accused of sexual assault in Nevada. Just like the current situation, he was not criminally charged. In 2006 was involved in a serious motorcycle accident in which he was not wearing a helmet. For an NFL player with such great decision-making skills on the field, Roethlisberger seems to repeatedly put himself in sticky situations off the field.
While Roethlisberger is no longer in legal trouble from the Georgia incident, he still has the NFL to deal with. Under the NFL Personal Conduct Policy, Roger Goodell, the commissioner, has the right to suspend a player if he has repeated issues such as those faced by Roethlisberger, who has had two women make sexual assault accusations against him in just the past year. The reason the league and the Steelers have let Roethlisberger get away with things is because he is one of the NFL's star players and one of the most successful. At the relatively young age of 28, he has won two Super Bowls with the Steelers.
This time it is different. Roethlisberger's play on the field is no longer the first thing you think of when you see his face on the screen; the off-field incidents now go hand in hand. No one would be surprised if Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for several games to start the season. The message would be sent: even the biggest stars must behave when the game is over. My only problem with this is, I find it tough to punish someone when they have not been convicted, nor even charged with a crime. That being said, the NFL have a league to run and they can run it with whatever rules they see fit.
I also think the pressure is on the Steelers. They have turned their collective heads each time Roethlisberger has got himself into a jam. Should they suspend him even before the NFL have the chance to? How will that play with their fans? Starting the season without Roethlisberger would give them much less of a chance of winning another Super Bowl. Being a Steeler is supposed to mean something. They have won more Super Bowls than any other team and their owners, the Rooney family, are among the most respected families in sports.
Their black helmets evoke images of Terry Bradshaw throwing to Lynn Swann, the graceful power of Franco Harris and Jack Lambert staring down a quarterback. While some of that Steeler pride might be manufactured, recent off-field issues have to be hitting the Rooneys hard. They were the franchise that won the right way. They did not try to buy titles. They never gave up on their coaches. They always embraced the community.
If there is a sense of panic in Pittsburgh today, it is not because they traded Santonio Holmes or because Roethlisberger could be suspended. It is because the definition of what the Steelers aimed to be, what they thought they were, is in jeopardy. Legacies take a long time to build, but they do not last forever. Roethlisberger is taking the heat now for his recent actions, but the Steelers may be judged over the next few years more for their actions in the coming months than their win-loss record.