With a stern lecture to one of his most accomplished stars, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell Wednesday added a four-to-six game suspension and heavy fines to the growing cost of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's bar escapades in a small Georgia town seven weeks ago.
"In your six years in the NFL, you have first thrilled and now disappointed a great many people. I urge you to take full advantage of this opportunity to get your life and career back on track," Mr. Goodell wrote in a letter to Mr. Roethlisberger outlining the punishment.
It was a remarkable fall from grace for the athlete who astonished the football world first by becoming the youngest quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl at age 23, then three years later repeating the feat with a precision pass to Santonio Holmes to win another Super Bowl -- this one called one of the greatest in the history of the game -- in the closing seconds.
Fans might never see that image the same way again. In the span of less two weeks, Mr. Holmes, the game's MVP with the toe-tapping touchdown, was traded away to the New York Jets with a four-game suspension for substance abuse clouding his start there.
His quarterback, Mr. Roethlisberger, 28, was not charged with a crime after a woman accused him of sexually assaulting her, but nevertheless will pay a heavy price for his indiscretions in the early morning of March 5 in Milledgeville, Ga. And others are paying as well.
Mr. Goodell used the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy to discipline Mr. Roethlisberger, while at the same time offering him a path to redemption.
He will undergo a comprehensive behavioral evaluation, then counseling and then be suspended, which could cost him anywhere from $1.9 million for a four-game suspension to $3.3 million for a six-game suspension, which would include the Steelers bye week and thus seven weeks of salary..
The suspension would be four games if Mr. Roethlisberger successfully completes counseling to Mr. Goodell's satisfaction.
Mr. Roethlisberger will not be able to participate in any team activity until his evaluation is completed. Then he will be permitted to practice in training camp and to play in preseason games, though during his suspension he will not be permitted to practice or work out at the Steelers facility.
The suspension means Mr. Roethlisberger will miss at least the first four games to open the season against Atlanta, Tennessee, Tampa Bay and Baltimore. The Steelers have a bye in the season's fifth week and then play Cleveland and Miami, additional games Mr. Roethlisberger would miss if he gets the full suspension Mr. Goodell issued Wednesday.
In addition, the Steelers will be fined $200,000 under Mr. Goodell's policy instituted last year that also punishes a team if its players violate the NFL personal conduct policy.
Mr. Goodell levied the punishment on Mr. Roethlisberger for his actions in Georgia even though authorities there, after more than a month of investigating the woman's accusation, declined to bring charges against him. Mr. Roethlisberger thus becomes the first NFL player Mr. Goodell has suspended for violating the league conduct policy even though he was never charged with a crime.
However, in a letter to Mr. Roethlisberger, Mr. Goodell cited the purchase of alcohol for underage women.
Wrote Mr. Goodell: "The Personal Conduct Policy makes clear that I may impose discipline 'even where the conduct does not result in conviction of a crime' as, for example, where the conduct 'imposes inherent danger to the safety and well being of another person.' "
The fallout from the night of bar-hopping also took in others as well: A Pennsylvania state trooper who was with Mr. Roethlisberger that night no longer has permission to work when off-duty for the quarterback, and a Milledgeville police officer who was the first to talk to Mr. Roethlisberger's accuser resigned after witnesses said he made derogatory comments about the woman.
Mr. Roethlisberger also is fighting a civil lawsuit filed against him last July in Nevada by a woman who claims he sexually assaulted her in a Lake Tahoe resort in 2008. Mr. Roethlisberger was not charged with a crime in that instance and has counter-sued the woman.
Steelers President Art Rooney II said his team conducted its own investigation of Mr. Roethlisberger and concurred with the punishment meted out by Mr. Goodell.
"We were prepared to impose discipline" if Mr. Goodell did not, Mr. Rooney said.
Mr. Rooney also said it appears the NFL Players Association is satisfied with Mr. Goodell's ruling as well, although a spokesman for the union said there would be no comment "at this time."
"My understanding is the players association does not plan to appeal it," Mr. Rooney said. "Obviously, they need to review it and discuss it with Ben."
Mr. Roethlisberger's agent, Ryan Tollner, said they were working on a statement from the quarterback but as of last night, none was forthcoming.
Mr. Rooney said he and Mr. Goodell informed the quarterback of the decision Wednesday morning.
With the annual NFL draft starting tonight, teams have called the Steelers inquiring about trading for Mr. Roethlisberger. The Steelers have listened and have not discounted the possibility they would trade their starting quarterback, but they are not actively seeking a trade.
"As we've said before, we really can't answer questions about trades," Mr. Rooney said. "We go into every draft with the idea we'll do whatever we can to make our team a better football team, so we'll just have to stick with that and not discuss trades in advance."
They did make a trade on Tuesday, however, acquiring Byron Leftwich from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a seventh-round pick in the draft. Mr. Leftwich signed a one-year contract extension Wednesday, which would keep him with the Steelers through 2011.
Mr. Leftwich, veteran Charlie Batch and third-year pro Dennis Dixon will vie to start the season at quarterback for the Steelers. Mr. Batch has been a backup with them since 2002. Mr. Leftwich joined them for the 2008 season when a preseason injury shelved Mr. Batch for the rest of the season. Mr. Leftwich joined Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent last year.
"At this point, we felt like we would have Ben out for at least the first few games of the season," Mr. Rooney said. "We really didn't know how many games until this morning, but felt we needed to add depth to our quarterback position because of that.
"Byron ... was a pretty obvious choice to bring back in."
Among other excerpts from Mr. Goodell's letter to Mr. Roethlisberger:
• "I recognize that the allegations in Georgia were disputed and that they did not result in criminal charges being filed against you. My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor. That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans."
• "Your conduct raises sufficient concerns that I believe effective intervention now is the best step for your personal and professional welfare."
• "I believe it is essential that you take full advantage of the resources available to you. My ultimate disposition in this matter will be influenced by the extent to which you do so, what you learn as a result, and a demonstrated commitment to making positive change in your life."
With the off-field issues surrounding Mr. Roethlisberger and Mr. Holmes, Mr. Rooney acknowledged last Thursday that Steelers' image has taken a "hit."
However, Mr. Rooney said the franchise's own conduct policy has not changed because of those issues. Wednesday, he talked about the speech Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin reportedly gave to his players in which he warned them about toeing the line.
"I think that coach Tomlin was trying to just remind the guys that we have high standards here and remind them of their responsibility," Mr. Rooney said. "We have not changed our policy and we do have high standards here. By the same token we're in the people business and people make mistakes and when they do we have to follow procedures ... The interpretation by the players is that Mike was telling them they should have their own zero tolerance policy, but as far as the team is concerned we really have not changed our policy."
For more on the Steelers, read the new blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published April 22, 2010 4:00 AM