Welcome to Roger Goodell's NFL, where you can be suspended from football without being arrested or charged with a crime.
Whether you agree with the NFL's suspension of Ben Roethlisberger, it's important to realize what an unbelievable expansion the NFL has now undertaken into the private lives of its players. Never before has a player been suspended from a league for something that is entirely of a private nature. Sure, we've had suspensions for gambling, drug use, utilization of banned substances that increase athlete potential, but never before has a player been suspended without being arrested or charged with a crime.
And as the 21st century progresses, with the rise of new media and the alacrity with which media reports can damn athletes no matter their guilt or innocence, the NFL may have won the public relations battle while losing the war. Because, guess what, this won't be the last time that a prominent football player is accused of a seamy crime. And this won't be the last time that Roger Goodell, the NFL's own Solomon, sits in a high court of sports justice.
As anyone who has ever practiced criminal law knows, guilt or innocence is rarely a bright line rule; the criminal court dwells in a constant sea of gray, uncertain testimony, questionable motives, witnesses who aren't completely truthful, a jumble of uncertainty, the whirlwind of conflicting stories.
That's why our court system requires that someone be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before we punish them. As a country, we'd rather see 1000 guilty men go free than unjustly imprison one person for a crime he didn't commit. That's just what we believe.
You or I can read the Big Ben police report and the pre-existing civil complaint filed in Nevada and draw our own conclusions. Personally, I believe that Ben Roethlisberger is likely a rapist. But that hasn't been proven beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of Big Ben's peers. Moreover, that personal belief doesn't change my opinion of what the NFL has to do in the absence of a player being arrested or charged with a crime.
Not one damn thing.
Because it's not the NFL's job to determine guilt or innocence in criminal matters.
And if you value the judicial process one iota, if you value the ability of a player to defend himself in a court of law, and, perhaps most importantly, believe that the media doesn't determine whether someone is guilty or not, then you have to repudiate the NFL's decision to expand the bounds of sports justice and suspend a player for an entirely off-the-field action that led neither to an arrest nor charges being filed.
Because what we've really learned from the Ben Roethlisberger complaint is that if you are publicly accused of a bad enough crime, regardless of whether you're guilty or innocent, you're deserving of punishment in Roger Goodell's NFL. That's what the NFL has done today. Something that the NBA, Major League Baseball, and the NHL never have before, opened up the private lives of their players and made them subject to punishment for an act that clearly doesn't implicate the on-field play.
George Orwell's 1984?
Welcome to the NFL's 2010.
In making its decision the NFL has proven that guilt, innocence, due process, and reasonable doubt are trite and trivial terms. Of course, the league's correct, those are terms that belong in a democracy. But, as we all see now, the NFL is not a democracy, it's a dictatorship, run by one man who would be Emperor. What the NFL is concerned with is neither guilt nor innocence, it's the appearance of guilt or innocence.
At least we can all rest assured that no one is ever charged with a crime they didn't commit.
Oh, except for situations like the Duke lacrosse case. Only the Duke lacrosse case has something that Ben Roethlisberger's case never had -- actual charges filed by a district attorney.
Let's dive in here and take a look at what the NFL has taught us with today's ruling.
1. The NFL's new standard for guilt or innocence?
Even after three years of the personal conduct policy, we still don't have a clue.
It really just depends on the infallible hand of justice wielded by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
But is any man infallible, truly capable of the wisdom of Solomon?
Goodell believes he is, that's the only lesson we can glean from his actions.
Of course, life teaches us otherwise.
And that's what is most scary about this punishment. The vast majority of fans and media will applaud this decision, further emboldening the commissioner to take more expansive powers to mete "justice." Eventually, if they haven't already, those powers are going to lead to gross injustice and the NFL's continued bastardization of the American criminal justice process.
2. What penalties will you face for violating the personal conduct policy?
Because if you're going to be punished, we as a society, believe that you should be aware of what punishments you're going to face for a particular act.
That's only fair for NFL players too, right?
Here's a rough synopsis of the NFL's personal conduct penalties:
a. Engage in dog-fighting
two additional games after a year in prison
b. Sexually assault someone in the opinion of the commissioner
four games (six if you don't seem contrite enough)
c. Make it rain in a Las Vegas strip club (among other misdemeanors)
d. Have lots of illegal weapons in your house
e. Engage in a series of dumb misdemeanors and small-time felonies in the Cincinnati suburbs
f. Kill a man while driving drunk
Looking at this roster of personal conduct punishments levied by the NFL, do you really have any clue what the suspensions facing a particular player for a particular incident are going to be?
Doesn't that mean that the personal conduct policy is arbitrary, inconsistent, and unfair?
Of course, it does. But as has been demonstrated, the goal of the policy isn't to be any of these things, it's merely to combat perceptions that the NFL players aren't well-behaved. Guilt or innocence, as the policy itself states, is immaterial.
3. We've entered a radical new era in pro sports where one man can unilaterally decide that your off-field actions are immoral and that he's going to suspend you for them even if you aren't arrested or charged.
Then, if you disagree with his judging of your morals, he gets to hear your appeal!
Is no one else troubled by this?
How can the NFL Player's Association continue to take these punishments without raising one iota of defense for the members of its union? How can anyone countenance a private league poring through the personal minutiae of someone's private life?
Again, if you don't realize how radical the NFL's position is, look at what happened when Kobe Bryant was charged with sexual assault in Colorado. The NBA waited for the court system to act, the victim eventually chose not to testify, the case was dismissed, and the league issued no punishment.
How could they?
Bryant wasn't judged guilty of anything.
Compare Kobe's treatment to Ben Roethlisberger's. Roethlisberger wasn't even charged with a crime.
The NBA allowed the justice system to do its job, it didn't try to become the justice system. The NFL, on the other hand, believes that it is above the American justice system.
4. Where does an NFL athlete's private life actually begin now?
All we know is that now it's somewhere short of actually being charged with a crime. There's a morals police now.
Earlier this week, I asked if failing to make child support payments wasn't deserving of league censure? What about fathering multiple children by multiple women out of wedlock?
Where do you draw the line on private morality as it relates to football eligibility?
And now that Ben Roethlisberger has been suspended for a purely private act that ended in neither arrest nor charges being filed, when does an NFL player become a private citizen?
Put plainly, we have no clue.
Just that every NFL player has a lot less privacy today than they had yesterday.
5. Finally, is no one else troubled by the NFL saying sexual assault is a four-game punishment?
Because that's what they're basically saying, right? This is the mess the NBA avoided by not punishing Kobe Bryant.
The NFL Court of Justice has rendered its verdict and, to me, it seems that four games actually devalues the woman's charges more than no NFL action at all.
Because, as a woman, do you really want to believe that the NFL considers sexual assault to be commensurate with a four-game suspension? That is, if the league truly believes that Ben Roethlisberger committed a crime, isn't it sending an incredibly awful message by suspending him for just four games?
Look out for the hard hand of NFL justice, next thing you know someone is going to miss eight entire games, that's half the season!, for blowing up an airplane.
After all, even after this punishment, Big Ben still gets to play in the other 10 or 12 NFL games.
And if, as I'm sure the NFL will allege, they are penalizing Roethlisberger not for the act but merely for the devaluing of their brand, that's even more laughable.
What am I getting at?
The NFL can't actually win this public relations mess.
All we know for certain after this punishment in the absence of either an arrest or a criminal charge is that it's open season on NFL athlete allegations.
So let me start.
Hey, look, I just saw Peyton Manning cheating on his taxes.
How many games is that worth Emperor Goodell?