More than one week after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodellannounced his (conditional) six-game suspension of Pittsburgh SteelersQuarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the fallout from the decision is still front-pagenews. In case you missed it, here is a brief recap of the events that led up toGoodell’s announcement.
On March 5, 2010, a 20-year-old female college studentaccused Roethlisberger of sexual assault following an incident in a bathroom ofa Georgia nightclub. The Midgeville, Georgia Police Department conducted a fullinvestigation and submitted a report to the District Attorney’s Office ofOcmulgee, Georgia. On April 12, District Attorney Fred Blight announced thatRoethlisberger would not face any charges stemming from the incident, notingthat while he did not “condon[e] Mr. Roethlisberger’s actions,” there wasinsufficient evidence to prove criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
Whether on ESPN, CNN, or MSNBC, the question posed to every sportsanalyst and legal expert called in to comment on the Roethlisberger situationhas been essentially the same: Should the NFL be permitted to punish an athletefor questionable conduct that does not result in formal criminal charges? Themedia analysts’ response was nearly unanimous: Yes. The experts agree that whiledefendants in the criminal justice system are entitled to a standard of proofbeyond a reasonable doubt, there is no similar guarantee under the NFL’spersonal conduct policy. Additionally, the opportunity to play in the NFL is aprivilege, not a right, and all players are expected to abide by a minimalstandard of conduct in their personal lives. Roethlisberger’s actions on March 4-5clearly did not meet that standard, and therefore he should be punished.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Iam not a Ben Roethlisberger fan. Since he entered the NFL in 2004,Roethlisberger has made one terrible decision after the next:
· Exhibit A: (June 12, 2006) Roethlisberger isinjured in a motorcycle accident in which he is not wearing a helmet;
· Exhibit B: (July 17, 2009) Roethlisberger isaccused of sexual assault in a Lake Tahoe hotel room while attending acelebrity golf tournament;
· Exhibit C: (March 5, 2010) Roethlisberger isaccused of sexual assault for the second time in eight months.
Moreover, as a Washington Redskins fan, I resent the factthat the Steelers have won two Super Bowls during Roethlisberger’s tenure, whilethe Redskins have not won a Super Bowl since 1991 (and have run out elevendifferent starting quarterbacks since 2000).
While I agree with the analysts’ consensus that the NFL waswell within its right to suspend Roethlisberger for his actions on March 4-5, Itake issue with the “sentence” imposed by Goodell to the extent that itreflects punishment for a “pattern of behavior” rather than for Roethlisberger’smost recent transgression. During a radio interview that aired the day beforethe suspension was announced, Goodell explained to ESPN’s Dan Patrick that the Roethlisbergersituation was troubling primarily because it indicated “a pattern of behavior and bad judgments.” I have no problem with theNFL’s desire to hold Roethlisberger to a higher standard of conduct as a high-profileplayer, but the notion of punishing a player for a “course of conduct” runscounter to the legal principle that defendants should not be convicted on thebasis of propensity evidence. Even drawing every reasonable inference in Roethlisberger’sfavor, his conduct on the night of March 4-5 was more than sufficient towarrant league action. By roping in Roethlisberger’s previous transgressionsinto his punishment, Goodell not only set a questionable precedent, but also weakenedhis condemnation of Roethlisberger’s actions on the night in question.
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