Commentary

Roethlisberger must face the hammer

Steelers, NFL should make a suspension part of the consequences

Originally Published: April 12, 2010
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

With his 10-minute statement to the media on Monday, Milledgeville (Ga.) District Attorney Fred Bright just made it painfully clear what must happen to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger must be punished swiftly. He must be disciplined in a way that makes sense to anybody who heard Bright recount details of the alleged sexual encounter with a 20-year-old college student in March. You simply couldn't listen to this story and expect Roethlisberger to walk away unscathed even now that Bright has decided not to charge him with sexual assault.

I keep hearing how the Steelers sent a message to Roethlisberger about his behavior by trading troubled wide receiver Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets on Sunday. I also keep thinking that's a cop-out.

If the Steelers really want to put Roethlisberger in his place, direct action is the only strategy that works in this case. Just as they felt it necessary to deal Holmes in the wake of his issues, they need to hammer Big Ben -- who also faces a lawsuit from a woman who claims he raped her in Lake Tahoe in the summer of 2008 -- for those that he has brought upon himself. (Roethlisberger denies the Lake Tahoe allegation, has not been criminally charged in that case, either, and has filed a countersuit for damages in the lawsuit).

In fact, it's hard to see how the Steelers and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell have any other option at this stage. When Bright appeared on Monday afternoon to explain his decision-making process in this case, it seemed as if he would be offering the standard-issue news conference for such matters. He needed to protect the integrity of his office by making it clear that Roethlisberger's celebrity didn't factor into this case going south. Bright was doing what any official in his situation would do -- he was preparing to sufficiently cover his butt.

However, he went a step further than normal. He laid as much of the story out there as he could, presumably so everybody could know this wasn't merely a case of an aspiring gold digger missing out on a big payday from a reckless star athlete. The most revealing details involved Roethlisberger's allegedly buying an already inebriated girl (and her friends) shots, then meeting her in a bathroom. Even without knowing what happened next, Bright's detailed account had to make the hairs on the back of Goodell's neck snap to attention.

Now, would this be the first time something like this has happened in the world of pro sports? Certainly not. It also doesn't mean Roethlisberger committed a crime behind closed doors. What it does tell us is the public relations nightmare for Roethlisberger, the Steelers and Goodell just went from bad to worse. Bright hadn't even started talking about a letter the woman had written to his office -- one that claimed she and her family didn't want the case prosecuted -- before it was apparent that much more would be coming from the league, team and player.

First off, the Steelers must answer some tough questions about what they're going to do with Roethlisberger. Given that they're now in the business of shipping off troubled stars such as Holmes, they must explain how long a leash Roethlisberger now has within the organization. They also need to know that people will apply some racial implications to this story. If they go soft on Roethlisberger, it will appear the organization dumped the black guy with issues while the white guy got a slap on the wrist for his mistakes.

Secondly, Goodell is going to face even more scrutiny for his handling of the matter. He's been known to punish players in the past without the legal process running its course -- such as Adam "Pacman" Jones and Larry Johnson -- so he needs to show consistency in how he wields his personal conduct policy in this matter. It would be one thing if Roethlisberger had only one issue hovering over his head. Two claims of sexual assault should put him squarely within Goodell's crosshairs this time.

Most importantly, Roethlisberger -- who issued a short statement Monday apologizing to the Steelers and their fans -- must say something substantially more. He must talk about a need to drastically change his social habits, and a few more words about leadership wouldn't hurt, either. After all, we're not talking about a nose tackle or tight end here. This guy is the face of the franchise, and he should be held to a higher standard.

This is why it makes no sense to think that shipping Holmes off to the Jets is a wake-up call for Roethlisberger. That's the kind of stance that can fill a locker room with whispers of double standards and hypocrisy. Holmes made his mistakes and paid a price for them. Now it's time to see whether the Steelers -- and Goodell -- are willing to make Roethlisberger face the consequences for his own actions.

The safe bet here is that he ends up with a one-game suspension, from the team or from the commissioner. Behind closed doors, there likely will be threats and ultimatums hurled, as well. But what can't happen is for everybody involved -- the player, the team and the league -- to believe silence and time will make everybody forget this story.

Bright just told the world what he can about what happened that night and why he couldn't go forward with a case.

The next step is for Roethlisberger, the Steelers and Goodell to do their parts in cleaning up this mess.

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.