Politics, football, and the Constitution.

Today I am speaking to the Laguna Wood Republican Club. Tomorrow I address the California State College Republicans Convention at USC before heading down to San Diego for a 5 day swing kicked off with Evan Sayet’s Right to Laugh tour.

I have nothing to say about Earth Day. Yesterday was NFL Draft Day, the one area of life where merit and substance actually matter.

On Sunday I will have complete analysis of the NFL Draft.

Today, I want to focus on one issue that has serious implications not just for the National Football League, but for society at large.

Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (who is still not Jewish and resembles Will Ferrell) fought the law, and the law, aka Commissioner Roger Goodell, won.

Big Ben was suspended six games for his role in an alleged sexual assault that took place in a bar bathroom with a barely legal girl that had consumed alcohol. Opinions sharply diverged.




The National Football league has benefited from having several strong commissioners.

Bert Bell was highly regarded. Pete Rozell created Monday Night Football and oversaw the first Super Bowl and the AFL-NFL merger. Paul Tagliabue presided over 20 years of labor peace and an exponential increase in the wealth of the NFL brand through multi-billion dollar television deals.

Roger Goodell cannot be judged until he navigates the next labor deal. If football is off the air in 2011, Goodell will be tarnished. However, he should be given sky high praise for implementing a tough personal conduct policy. He has stated that no player is above the league, and he has backed up those words.

(For those thinking that Goodell is just a grumpy guy, this is insane. He is married to Jane Skinner, which makes being in a bad mood impossible.)

Pacman Jones was suspended for a year. Tank Johnson and Chris Henry were suspended eight games, half a year.

Michael Vick served two years in prison for dogfighting. When he came back, Goodell suspended him another four games (reduced to two) in addition. Yes Vick had served his time, but as Goodell repeatedly points out, that does not absolve him of his debt to the NFL.

One area of contention for some is that a player does not have to be convicted of a crime to be suspended.

This is very serious from a legal standpoint. The NFL conduct policy states that conduct detrimental to the league can result in sanctions. Detrimental is a subjective term, and the commissioner has broad powers.

While Goodell has powers that would make some dictators envious, he does not act capriciously. He has a track record of conducting very thorough investigations. He goes out of his way to strike a delicate balance between rehabilitation and punishment.

Yet the Ben Roethlisberger situation was like no other.

Roethlisberger was accused by a young woman of getting her liquored up, taking her in the bar bathroom, and sexually assaulting her. Goodell met with many people during his investigation, from Roethlisberger himself to the district attorney investigating the legal case.

After his investigation was completed, Goodell sanctioned Big Ben six games (which could be reduced to four).

Goodell was not deterred by Roethlisberger’s fame or his two Super Bowl championships. Goodell has been praised for not giving the top players special treatment.

Yet one nagging issue about this one case has given even Goodell supporters some pause.

It is one thing that Roethlisberger was not convicted of a crime. He was not even charged.

That’s right. The district attorney decided not to bring charges against Big Ben. Yet Goodell brought the hammer down anyway.

It is important to understand that not bringing charges does not mean innocence. The DA offered gory details that he believes happened but cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt. The DA deserves praise for treating Big Ben fairly. He was not treated better or worse than anybody else. The DA felt he did something bad, but did not start a weak case.

Goodell believed that Roethlisberger’s behavior, while not criminal, was abominable.

Goodell’s comments on the matter were as crystal clear as they were sensible.

“I recognize that the allegations in Georgia were disputed and that they did not result in criminal charges being filed against you.”
“My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor. That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans.”
“Your conduct raises sufficient concerns that I believe effective intervention now is the best step for your personal and professional welfare.”

Commissioner Goodell has the moral authority to lead, but what happens if he gets challenged?

What if Big Ben had decided not to accept the decision?

He was not charged with a crime. Does he have a legal case to appeal his suspension?

Courts have given professional sports franchises wide latitude to police themselves. They would be reluctant to intervene, especially since the overall conduct policy has been widely successful. It is one thing to be too lax in enforcing laws, but would a court really want to criticize a league that wants strict adherence to the law above and beyond what is required?

Mr. Goodell is responsible for a multi-billion dollar brand. Yet does that give him the right to sacrifice players like pawns?

Again, I think Goodell is fabulous (I have met him several times and told him so).

Yet what if the girl accusing Roethlisberger turns out to be lying?

One thing working against Big Ben is that this is the second allegation against him. A woman in Tahoe is claiming that he sexually assaulted her in his hotel room in 2008. No criminal charges have been filed, but she is suing him civilly.

However, Big Ben vehemently denies those charges, and is countersuing.

Could both women be lying?

Yes, they could.

Yet Goodell conducted his investigation. He found the allegations credible. Also, since Roethlisberger gave her alcohol, and admittedly took her into the bathroom, he is at the very least guilty of very poor judgment. That is what Goodell is upset about. This time it was bad judgment. If Goodell lets this go, and then Roethlisberger does something worse, Goodell would get hammered.

There are no easy answers to this question.

Ben Roethlisberger was not charged with a crime.

He was guilty of conduct detrimental to the league.

Goodell may have come down a bit hard (I think a one or two game suspension would have been sufficient. Six games is much more than I expected), but Roethlisberger could have avoided this situation altogether. Goodell did not “make an example” of him. The punishment seems very consistent with Goodell’s overall tough posture.

I am concerned that a player can be suspended without being charged with a crime. Yet I am also concerned that without strong discipline, football will be as out of control as other sports leagues. Bad behavior has been sharply reduced. The tough conduct policy has been successful.

Perhaps the issue is not whether a professional sports league is above the constitution. Another way of looking at it is that nobody is legally entitled to play professional sports. The pursuit of happiness does not guarantee a happy result.

Roethlisberger plays a game. Being suspended from his job is not the same as having his liberty taken away. There is no incarceration involved in this case.

This situation was avoidable, and Goodell clearly balanced rehabilitation with punishment. He described his actions as an intervention, and mentioned Roethlisberger’s welfare in addition to that of the league.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will be without their star quarterback for six games.

The league will remain as strong as ever, and Roger Goodell must be given credit for that.


2 Responses to “Politics, football, and the Constitution.”

  1. I think you’re taking a bit of a leap when you say the DA treated Roethlisberger no “better or worse than anybody else.” I’ve personally known guys who have gone down with a lot less, and have heard of many, many. Perhaps one could say the DA treated Big Ben no better or worse than anybody else with a lot of money and fame.

    Ben’s biggest problem is that he behaves in ways that leave him vulnerable to these kinds of problems. The question for Goodell was whether Ben should be punished, basically, for acting like a moron. That’s a little tricky. Goodell looks like he’s just making an arbitrary example of Reothlisberger on this one, once again reinforcing my opinion that this commish is not a very good one.

    You’re concern about players being punished without being convicted of crimes is misplaced. Players are regularly punished for non-criminal reasons. There are probably hundreds of such punishments meted out each year.

    And I have no idea what you mean about the league being as strong as ever. There is very serious discontent among the players right now. We’re going to see Goodell backed into a corner, made to endlessly look the bad guy, as players mess with him and league, going out of their way to get punished. Expect league-bashing trash-tweets, inter-team accusations of tamering and such, and on and on. You’re affection for Goodell seems rather undeserved.


  2. tkinsey says:

    I thought the penalty was pretty harsh for not even being charged with a crime. I think we all have a pretty good idea of what happened and while I think Ben is pretty much a scum bag, I don’t know that it warrants an 8 game suspension.

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