Roethlisberger Suspended For Conduct Violations
NEAL CONAN, host:
Last week, a district attorney in Georgia announced that he will not seek rape charges against football star Ben Roethlisberger, but only because there wasn't enough evidence to prove it.
On Sunday, a lengthy story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette included damning details from the police report on the incident with a 20-year-old college student in a nightclub bathroom, and disclosed that local cops bungled the investigation. The police sergeant in charge resigned over the weekend.
While the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback will not face a criminal trial, he did have to meet with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. And today, the commissioner suspended Roethlisberger for as many as six games at the start of next season for violation of the league's personal conduct code.
So do you think the punishment fits the crime; 808-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now is Bob Dvorchak, the sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, joins us at the studios at KDKA.
And Bob, I know you're busy with this story and with the NFL draft tomorrow. We thank you for taking the time to be with us.
Mr. ROBERT DVORCHAK (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette): Neal, good to be here. It's 445 days from the Super Bowl, when Ben Roethlisberger threw a perfect pass to Santonio Holmes, who made a perfect catch. And the world has changed dramatically since then, hasn't it?
CONAN: Indeed. Santonio Holmes, the receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, suspended for four games at the start of next season, and I guess traded to the New York Jets for what most people evaluated is a bag of balls.
Mr. DVORCHAK: Correct. And they were - the Steelers were prepared to release him outright, you know, because there had been some offenses in his past, and they weren't going to tolerate that behavior. They were sending a message there, too. So you know, with the announcement today, you know, if it's four games, the quarterback stands to lose about $2 million in salary, and if it goes to six games, it's up into $3 million. So it's not, you know, it's not - it's not a light penalty at all in those terms.
CONAN: And a lot of people looked at those two cases, the African-American receiver, a more disposable player, and the white star quarterback, and wondered if there were going to be treated the same.
Mr. DVORCHAK: Right. I've heard this racial issue, and I think it's a lot of bunk. Last year, the incidents involving two players in domestic violence - a wide receiver, Cedrick Wilson, was let go, and linebacker James Harrison was given a big contract. But you know, it's a star system, and the stars get a little bit different treatment. Both of those players were African-Americans, so I don't see any racial overtones in this at all.
CONAN: And other people look at this case and say, hey, wait a minute, Ben Roethlisberger has never been charged with a crime, much less convicted.
Mr. DVORCHAK: Correct. And he has not been - and, you know, I don't want to parse it too closely to sound like a lawyer or anything. No criminal charges -however, the NFL does have a personal conduct policy, and if they see a pattern of behavior, repeat behavior, they're very image-conscious.
And then you look at the Pittsburgh Steelers - that are held up as a model franchise run by an Irish-Catholic family; they're held to a higher standard. They have the most female fans of any team in the NFL. So they've got - and it's more than an image. I think it's a brand. You know, they're very cognizant of how they come across to the rest - to their fans and to the rest of the country. They take this every seriously. They're upset. They're mad.
CONAN: And you should differentiate between a team like the Steelers, as you say, very old-line NFL, and a team that might revel, to some degree, in the outlaw image, like the old Oakland Raiders.
Mr. DVORCHAK: Right. You know, just win, baby - you know, a lot of that maybe was fostered in a different atmosphere, a different climate. You know, the world has changed completely. You got this 24-hour news cycle, and you see this scroll that comes across the bottom of the sports channels and your quarterback is the lead story, and it repeats and repeats and repeats. Those things weigh differently than they did in past days.
CONAN: We're talking with Bob Dvorchak, a sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 800-989-8255. E-mail us: email@example.com. Does the punishment fit the crime?
Reese is on the line from Laramie, Wyoming.
REESE (Caller): Hey, Neal. How are you doing? I love the show.
CONAN: Well, thank you.
REESE: I actually just wanted to say absolutely it fits the crime, but my comment was this should have never been handed over to the NFL commissioner. I think that the Rooneys should have gone directly to Commissioner Goodell and said: I tell you what, we're so disgusted with this misconduct that we plan to suspend him for X games. If you feel that there's any additional need to suspend him, we trust in your decision after the fact, but as it stands right now, because we stand for the city of Pittsburgh, we want to suspend him right now for X games. That would be up to them to decide, but I think that would have been the better move for the Pittsburgh Steelers organization.
CONAN: Bob Dvorchak, there is a difference between being suspended by a team and being suspended by the commissioner.
Mr. DVORCHAK: Well, absolutely. And don't forget, too, that, you know, it is - if you're going to let - there's the NFL Players Association that - deal with on this matter, too. If there's a suspension, you know, they can appeal a suspension. If it's by a team, on a different level, than they can if the league is doing it...
CONAN: As I understand it, if a team does it, it goes to an arbitrator.
Mr. DVORCHAK: Correct.
CONAN: If the commissioner does it, the commissioner is judge, jury and appeals court.
Mr. DVORCHAK: He is the man. There is no democracy in the NFL. He is judge, jury and executioner.
CONAN: But to Reese's broader point - the Steelers, corporately and individually in terms of the owner, Dan Rooney, had several opportunities to make comments to stand up for Ben Roethlisberger, if they so chose.
Mr. DVORCHAK: Well, let's see. If you go back to the civil suit that was filed against him, when he made a comment, it was in team offices and he was surrounded by the coach and team officials. When the charges were not brought against him last week, he made a statement surrounded by nobody but himself. He was all alone.
So you know, I guess you can say it's six of one or half a dozen of the other, but I mean the fact stands, a guy who was once the face of the franchise is now a different body part for the franchise. You know, whether, you know, it does -I don't think the Rooneys are averse to letting the league handle this as long as they knew it was going to be a severe punishment.
CONAN: Reese, thanks very much for the phone call. Let's go next to Frederick(ph), Frederick with us from Calistoga in California.
FREDERICK (Caller): Good morning, gentlemen. Bob, it's good to hear you. I read you at - on the blogs and my hometown Pittsburgh newspaper. And I wanted to put in to context - I feel what the team has meant to the city and the region of western Pennsylvania. You know, it's akin maybe to the New Orleans Saints and how they have brought the spirits of New Orleans back after that devastation. Let's remember back in the '60s and '70s, that the mills were closing throughout western Pennsylvania, and sports stalwarts like the Steelers and Roberto Clemente - and into the '70s, Willie Stargell - brought community together. They brought black and white, and upper-income and working class people together to renew a civic pride that we had felt severely damaged by the tremendous loss of employment and jobs in our region. And that legacy of stalwart people continued with people like Mario Lemieux staying in town...
FREDERICK: ...rebuilding the...
CONAN: The great hockey player, for those who don't know. Yes, yeah.
FREDERICK: He's a wonderful hockey player and a great civil statesman for the city. So I personally, as a man who grew up following Clemente in the '60s and followed the Steelers, say - would say that it's really time to attempt to cut ties with Ben, wish him well, but that we need to go hold - we need to honor that place of civic pride, and wish this man well - and look for other options.
CONAN: Bob Dvorchak, nobody failed to notice that the Steelers yesterday picked up the - Byron Leftwich, an experienced quarterback.
Mr. DVORCHAK: Well, right. As an insurance policy, you know, figuring that the suspension was coming down. And I appreciate your comments on reading - you know, newspapers are in tough throes these days, so it's good to have loyal readers. Your analogy is not far off - what this team, the Steelers, mean to the city of Pittsburgh; what the Saints meant to New Orleans. When the steel industry collapsed - you know, it's no longer the steel city, but it's still the Steelers city.
The Steelers are more than a football team. It's the brand. It's this city's number one brand. It's how they are known outside of Pittsburgh. When you're in Ireland - or if you're in Europe, or you're anywhere in the United States and you say, I'm from Pittsburgh, the home of the Steelers, people identify with that, not just because this team has won more Super Bowl championships than any other team since the merger. It's that it stands for a way of doing things that's the right way to do things, and it's a standard of excellence. And if somebody besmirches that, tarnishes that image, there are going to be repercussions.
CONAN: Let's go next to Aaron(ph), Aaron with us from Athens, Ohio.
AARON (Caller): Hey, Neal. Great. Big show of the - big fan of the show and the Steelers, so I'm glad to hear - have this on the show. But I just wanted to make the point that no matter what would have happened, in this ordeal and his previous ordeals, that no, I don't think anybody would have really known what happened between him and those two women - except for him and her. Having said that, I do believe that the punishment fits the crime, quote crime.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And by every description we have, it wasn't his ordeal, it was hers.
AARON: Oh, true, yes. But having said that - and yes, you're absolutely correct -having said that, I believe that the punishment does fit because of what Bob and previous callers have mentioned, that the team that he plays for and the NFL expect better conduct from the players.
AARON: And that's all there is to it.
CONAN: Bob Dvorchak, has Ben - he made a brief statement after the charges were dropped, saying that he thought that was the right thing and - but that he was terribly sorry, and would use - try to use better judgment in the future. Nevertheless, is he going to be pressed to say, look, what happened here? Are you going to ever defend yourself?
Mr. DVORCHAK: Well, Neal, yeah. I would like to hear that. What is Ben Roethlisberger's defense? I was in a college bar at 2:30 in the morning in the off-season, and an underage woman came in with some sorority girls' night. I bought them a couple of rounds of shots and something untoward happened. You know, what defense do you use there? It's - I think it was those details that came out afterwards. You know, the prosecutor said, look, we can't we prosecute crimes, we dont prosecute morality. But there are other people who do take care of morality.
And there's a, you know, there is the standard of behavior there. So I would like to hear that. I think every - not only fan of football in Pittsburgh, every Pittsburgher, every Pittsburgh resident would like to hear well, what were you doing, what were you thinking, what is your - what happened that night? And you know, one of the things that always comes out is, well, why wasn't he charged with a crime? If you read the woman's own statement, you listen to what the prosecutors were saying, she was inebriated to the point where she couldn't give a coherent statement. Did he attack you? I don't know. That's not a he said/she said. That's a really, really gray area.
We do know that something happened, and it was inappropriate, and it should never have happened. But I would like to hear his version, I certainly would.
CONAN: Bob Dvorchak of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go next to Jessie(ph), Jessie from Tallahassee.
JESSIE (Caller): Yeah, just to play devil's advocate real quick: Legally, if there's no crime, how is there a punishment?
Mr. DVORCHAK: The NFL has a personal conduct policy that says you do not have to be charged with a crime or convicted of a crime to be - to have engaged in bad behavior. If you engage in behavior that is in conflict with - the NFL stands for, with its image and its standards, then they can take - it's sort of like, you know, you don't have to be charged with a crime for your employer to say, you know, I saw what you did I saw what you did, and it was against company policy. It's that kind of a standard.
CONAN: And just to be - follow up on Jessie's point, this is, by far, the longest suspension ever issued to anybody who's never been arrested, much less charged with a crime.
Mr. DVORCHAK: Right. And I think that fits in with a number of circumstances that just converged here. One, it's been so much in the news. It's caused so much adverse publicity to the league and the Steelers. And I think because there had been the civil suit brought against him in the past, it suggested a pattern of behavior. And they had just had enough of it. They didnt want to see it happen again. They don't want to see their names dragged through the mud. They don't want to see their carefully crafted images tarnished by people who are doing things they shouldn't be doing.
CONAN: Jessie, thanks very much for the call. And I have to ask - I know it's a - the suspension was just announced earlier this afternoon, but has there been any response from Mr. Roethlisberger or his representatives as to whether they plan to appeal?
Mr. DVORCHAK: No, Neal. No response, and actually no response, no reaction from the team, either. But given the freshness of it, I wasn't sure if they had scheduled that later on. That could be in the works now. But Ben has not said any - he's been at the practices the last two days and hasnt talked to any of the media. Other than the statement that he read off the sheet of paper, he hasnt said anything. So I'm still waiting to hear if he will - or what the team might say after the commissioner's decision today.
CONAN: And just for clarification, he will be allowed to practice with the team. Would he be allowed to play in pre-season games, that sort of thing?
Mr. DVORCHAK: Well, no. There is that stipulation. Until he undergoes counseling, he cannot participate in any pre-season activities, as I read the decision from the commissioners. So until he goes to counseling and clears that hurdle, he won't be allowed to participate in practice and those types of things.
CONAN: And the suspension was conditional. It could be reduced to four games if Ben Roethlisberger is seen to have mended his ways.
Mr. DVORCHAK: Yes. There - it's - it could be - it's going to be a minimum of four games. It could be as many as six. But if he meets the criteria set down by the league that he has, indeed, confronted this thing and has taken steps to correct his behavior, then it'll be - then the two other games won't be tacked on.
CONAN: And clearly, this is the news of the day in terms of the National Football League. However, scheduled tomorrow is the start of the NFL draft and by Friday morning, I dont think this is going to be on the front page, except maybe in Pittsburgh.
Mr. DVORCHAK: You know what, I don't know if it's going to go away any time soon, because there might be some - there are trade implications involved here. There have been speculation. There have been teams that have called the Steelers, inquiring as to Ben Roethlisberger's availability. If you hear reports that the team is shopping him, that's not true. But they have entertained offers.
I would doubt that he would leave Pittsburgh unless the Steelers were overwhelmed by an offer, and I say that because if his - even if his behavior is despicable, a talent like him comes along once in a generation - which, you know, it lends itself to the reality here of why the Steelers are in such a bind.
CONAN: Two-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger, suspended today by the National Football League for - at least four, as many as six games, for a pattern of behavior detrimental to the team and to the league. Bob Dvorchak, thank you very much for your time today.
Mr. DVORCHAK: Neal, always a pleasure.
CONAN: Bob Dvorchak, a sports columnist for the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, joins us today from KDKA, the radio station in Pittsburgh.
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