In levying a six game suspension against Ben Roethlisberger under the aegis of the NFL personal conduct policy, commissioner Roger Goodell took a major league step in creating a system of parity for disciplinary actions for athletes' transgressions against women, alongside of other types of off- the- field offenses.
The four major sports leagues have longstanding policies to suspend players for using illegal substances, for involvement in drug dealing, and for gambling offenses, but rarely have they considered penalties for offensive actions toward women, including sexual assaults and domestic violence. In essence the message to athletes has been that if you are self-destructive (using illegal drugs, e.g. Manny Ramirez, Edinson Volquez or gambling, e.g. Pete Rose) you will be punished for staining the integrity of the game; but if you are destructive toward others, it will be overlooked.
Typically, in situations of allegations of sexual assault, legal charges are not pursued because of lack of evidence; or the case is dropped as a result of legal maneuvering or the discrediting the character of the victim. In 1992, nineteen players on the Cincinnati Bengals were accused of having gang raped a woman eighteen months earlier in a Seattle hotel suite. The accuser claimed that she had consensual sex with one of the players, and was then sexually assaulted by his teammates while they cheered each other on. When the woman threatened to go public with her allegations, the players provided $30,000 as a settlement to keep her quiet. Subsequently, she attempted to sue the nineteen players for multiple rape, but her case was dismissed because she had accepted the settlement agreement. No criminal charges were filed, and several players described the incident as group sex with a willing sports groupie. The NFL took no action against these athletes.
Kobe Bryant dodged sexual assault allegations in the 2003 episode, when the woman, confronted with death threats and character assassination, decided to withdraw her criminal lawsuit. The outcome in the Bryant case reinforced the belief among athletes that they could freely indulge their sexual impulses without regard for the consequences by alleging consent; if they are accused of sexual assault.
Thus, for athletes to be held accountable for violating sexual boundaries is a huge step forward. As a reflection of the current zeitgeist toward reckoning with athletes who cross the line into moral or legal misbehavior, I am reminded of Ford Frick, a former MLB commissioner, who in 1952, when confronted with rape charges against an active player, claimed that "to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a commissioner ever had to make a decision on a morals charge."
Although Roethlisberger has not been charged with any wrongdoing in the eyes of the law, the NFL personal conduct policy gives Goodell enormous latitude in administering suspensions on moral grounds. Fame often corrupts sports heroes, and leads them to violate boundaries in off-the-field activities. The adulation and anointment to the hero pedestal by the fans and the media contributed to Ben Roethlisberger's acquiring a distorted self image as "The Prince of Pittsburgh," but this is no excuse for his poor judgment and alleged mistreatment of women.
He probably had received warnings related to previous allegations of sexual misconduct that future incidents would not be taken lightly by the league or the Steelers. In the big picture the greater good is served by using Ben Roethlisberger as an example to establish the position that transgressions against women will be treated as seriously as other behavioral missteps. Psychologically, sexual assaults are not just about sex, but are also a form of violence toward women.
By suspending Roethlisberger, Roger Goodell is also sending a message to the entire NFL cohort that it is a privilege and responsibility to play in the league, and that off-the-field misconduct will not be tolerated. His strategy is based on the assumption that the erosion of respect for authority by professional athletes will be counteracted by his stance as the law and order commissioner.