NFL Administers Its Own Justice To Quarterback

Ben Roethlisberger avoided a criminal prosecution this month when a Georgia district attorney said there was not enough evidence to charge the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback with the sexual assault of a 20-year-old college student in a bar. But this week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said there was enough evidence of misconduct to justify a six-game suspension of the quarterback. Host Scott Simon talks to Howard Bryant of ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com about the NFL's decision to suspend Roethlisberger.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon and it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: If that's quite what you can call it. Ben Roethlisberger avoided a criminal prosecution this month when a Georgia district attorney said there was not enough evidence to charge the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback with the sexual assault of a 20-year-old college student in a bar.

But this week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said there was enough evidence of misconduct to justify a six-game suspension of the quarterback. Joined now by Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN the magazine.

Morning, Howard.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Scott. How are you?

SIMON: Fine, thanks. And I was struck by how strong the statements from both the commissioner and the owner of the Steelers were. Does it indicate something has changed in sports?

BRYANT: Well, to me, certainly. I think the first major change is in the reaction to these scandals by both the teams in the league. I think that tacit approval by inaction is gone. The Pittsburgh Steelers are a family organization. They were embarrassed. They were angry. I think they realized that they had also offended a pretty high number of their fan base.

And I don't think that they just thought it was one of those examples of those wacky guys being boys who will be boys who sometimes get out of control. I think they realized the seriousness of this. And I think they realized that that is - it's really not funny anymore. I think the society itself has changed.

SIMON: Well, and I want to get you to talk about that, because you a very good, strong column this week about the larger implications of this suspension and how you think society and sports have changed.

BRYANT: Well, I think one of the major things is that we spent a lot of time a couple of weeks ago on Phil Mickelson winning the Masters and that this was supposed to be a victory for women, because his wife Amy was fighting breast cancer. And I'm sure at some level that it was inspirational.

But the real victory is in the reaction that both the police, and I think the public to a lesser extent, and the league, I don't think that they view this anymore as we did a few years ago, when Kobe Bryant was in his problems with sexual assault and during his rape case. I think that what you see now is that there's certainly a low tolerance for the - for players acting and behaving in a certain way.

And I think to a lesser extent, obviously, the women involved have to have their own accountability. This notion of hero worship has to end, where you have these young women who go to these bars who are excited about the fact they're having sex or being close to a professional athlete and then trouble ensues. I think everyone has - I think we've moved in a better direction than we were certainly seven years ago.

Maybe it's not enough. It certainly isn't enough. But you look at the way Tiger Woods has been viewed now. He's certainly discredited. Ben Roethlisberger is discredited. And in the past I think you looked at the athlete as the one being the victim, because, oh, they have all this money and how can they help themselves? I think you've seen a huge attitude change.

SIMON: You expect Ben Roethlisberger to be booed?

BRYANT: I expect him to be booed. I expect there - I think there will be people who will never look at him the same way and I think maybe the most important thing is I think that there are going to be many parents who don't want number seven on the back of their kids' jersey.

And I think that's the big thing that the NFL and these leagues have to realize, is that they're selling this idea of a moral value to kids when the bottom line is that the players aren't that at all in many instances.

SIMON: Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN the magazine. Thanks so much.

BRYANT: My pleasure.

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