This is why they pay Roger Goodell the big bucks. For a commissioner who quickly gained a reputation as a strict disciplinarian after taking over for Paul Tagliabue in August 2006 by throwing suspensions at his league's miscreants like so many nickels and dimes, the decision he makes regarding punishment (or potentially, lack thereof) for Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger may be the trickiest one that he's had to make.
People are quick to compare Roethlisberger's situation to those of Adam "Pacman" Jones, the late Chris Henry, and Michael Vick (I'll throw Tank Johnson in there, too). These are all guys that got the hammer dropped on their careers by Goodell (and Vick by the federal government) in a summer of 2007 that was Goodell's disciplinary equivalent of the "settling all family business scene" at the end of The Godfather. The only thing missing was the commissioner holding a baby and renouncing Satan during a baptism ceremony as the suspensions got handed down.
But really other than the sheer stupidity of everyone involved, the comparisons of Roethlisberger to the Criminal Class of 2007 don't hold much water if you examine them closely enough and avoid generalizing all of them as "those NFL boys behaving badly."
While the details of Roethlisberger's exploits on that March evening in Milledgeville, GA have an unsavory feel to them to be sure, Goodell in some sense has to act based on only what we KNOW, right?
It's much easier for Goodell to come in and go all "new sheriff in town" on everybody if there are some facts that back up his clean-up efforts; the facts are not nearly as generous to his cause in the Roethlisberger case as they were in the Jones, Henry, Johnson and Vick cases.
Let's outline what we knew as FACT for each of those players, shall we?
ADAM "PACMAN" JONES
-- In July 2005, Jones was arrested for assault and felony vandalism in a nightclub altercation.
-- In August 2006, Jones was arrested for disorderly conduct and public intoxication.
-- In February 2007 at the NBA All Star weekend in Las Vegas, Jones was part of an entourage that started a melee at a Las Vegas strip club and one of the people in Jones' group fired a gun into a crowd, hitting three people and paralyzing a security guard from the waist down.
-- In May 2007, Jones was pulled over for going 79 MPH in a 55 MPH zone in a Cadillac that was part of a cocaine bust in 2006 while registered to Jones.
-- After getting reinstated and traded to the Dallas Cowboys, Jones managed to get re-suspended by getting into a fist fight with his team-provided security detail.
-- In December 2005, Henry was arrested with marijuana in his shoes during a routine search of his car on a speeding stop.
-- A month later, he was arrested in Orlando on gun charges, including concealment and aggravated assault.
-- In April 2006, Henry allowed three underage girls (ages 18, 16 and 15) to consume alcohol at a Kentucky hotel with him.
-- In June 2006, he blew a .092 BAC when he was pulled over on a traffic stop, .012 over the legal limit.
-- In October 2006, he was suspended for two games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
-- In November 2005, Johnson was arrested in Chicago for possession of a handgun in his SUV.
-- In February 2006, while on probation, Johnson was arrested for aggravated assault and resisting arrest.
-- In December 2006, police found six guns including two assault rifles in Johnson's home in Gurnee, Illinois. Some of the guns were loaded and there were children in the house.
-- Two days later, Johnson's friend and bodyguard Willaim Posey was killed in a shooting at the Ice Bar in Chicago during an argument.
(As for Vick, do we really need to detail his transgressions? I mean, the guy did go to prison for nearly two years for killing dozens of dogs, so Goodell piling on after he got out of the clink was not a surprise nor was it unwarranted.)
The things I list above are all things that we KNOW to be fact. There's nothing nebulous or "he said/she said" about any of the above listed exploits of the players involved. With that in mind, what do we know to be fact about Big Ben and his tomfoolery?
-- In June 2006, Roethlisberger crashed his motorcycle while riding helmetless with an expired temporary learner's permit for riding a motorcycle. He suffered several facial and dental injuries, but nothing career nor life-threatening.
-- In July 2009, a civil suit was filed against Roethlisberger for the alleged 2008 sexual assault of Andrea McNulty, a worker at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe. McNulty did not file a criminal complaint and has since had a co-worker come out and say that she was essentially looking for a payday.
-- In March 2010, police investigated the alleged sexual assault by Roethlisberger of a 20-year-old college student in Milledgeville, Georgia at a local bar. A month later, the district attorney indicated no charges would be filed against Roethlisberger, citing a lack of evidence (but also providing some juicy, non-incriminating details).
-- Roethlisberger addressed the media on April 12 with a hideous mullet, greased back like Razor Ramon. The only thing missing was gold chains around his neck and a tooth pick in his mouth.
So if you're keeping score at home, these are the things we KNOW about the first group of players: They have all been ARRESTED multiple times amidst charges of drugs, alcohol and/or violence that oftentimes involve guns, and unfortunately in the case of Jones even involves an actual shooting that resulted in life-changing injuries for the victim.
These are the things we KNOW about Roethlisberger: He has never been arrested. He's not very smart. He's not very careful. He's 20-something years old and likes to hang out in bars with women and tries to pick up those women in an effort to presumably have relations with them. He's basically a meathead douchebag.
So can you be suspended by the NFL if your biggest transgression is being a meathead douchebag?
If Goodell chooses to suspend Roethlisberger, the appropriate and immediate follow up question needs to be "For what?" According to what we KNOW, he hasn't raped nor assaulted anybody. Hell, he's never even had his rights read to him by an officer of the law. What he has done is nearly kill himself on a motorcycle, and put himself in position (VIP room at a club, buying shots for drunk coeds) for women to easily take a crack at a payday or, at the very least, misrepresent actual sexual interaction.
If Goodell suspends Roethlisberger even just for one game, he's essentially suspending him for stupidity, and for being a wanna-be frat boy at age 28. What Goodell would be saying is either (a) he doesn't believe Ben's denials on the assault charges, or more likely (b) "I'm Roger Goodell, I'll suspend you if I want to suspend you." It's one thing to be an extension of or a follow-up to the work of the actual police; that's what Goodell was in the cases of Jones, Henry, Johnson, and Vick. It's entirely another to be the Morality or Stupidity Police, and start handing out suspensions to a guy for basically not being very good at clubbing.
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Suspending Roethlisberger sets a tricky precedent for Goodell, because let's face it -- if you're going to suspend a guy for what essentially is a bad night in a bar (again, this is all we KNOW; we can't assume anything), then he better go ahead and just hire lieutenant commissioners for each team because Goodell's going to be awfully busy. That's why I've thought all along that if a suspension came down for Big Ben, it would be from the Steelers -- one, because it would keep Goodell's fingerprints off of it, and two, it would at least appear as though Santonio Holmes wasn't the only one the team directly made an example of (although, after watching Brandon Marshall, a dude with as much baggage as Holmes, go for two second-round picks to Miami, weren't the Steelers ultimately the losers in all of that?)
To me the biggest question has yet to be answered -- has Ben Roethlisberger had his "scared straight" moment yet? For all of the thoughts that suspending these guys sends a message and cleans them up, Jones just wound up getting suspended again, and Henry wound up dying after getting tossed off the flatbed of a pickup truck his fiance was driving in an effort to escape from him. In a bizarre twist, Michael Vick's going to prison may have made him the lucky one of the bunch in that it truly did appear to get him on the right path.
Has Ben been scared straight? So far the only indication that the answer is "maybe" is the fact that he cut his greasy mullet before visiting with Goodell. Baby steps, I suppose.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the Sean & John Show, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.