NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spoke to reporters this morning at Steelers training camp and appeared to leave the door open that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's suspension could be fewer than four games. But a spokesman from the NFL in New York later clarified that the suspension will be four games at minimum.
Roethlisberger was suspended for the first six games of the regular season with the possibility that it could be reduced to four after he was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year old Georgia woman in March. Roethlisberger was not prosecuted after the district attorney in Milledgeville, Ga. determined that there was not enough evidence to pursue the case.
When asked if there was any chance Roethlisberger's suspension could be reduced to fewer than four games, Goodell responded: "I'll make that decision later this month, but that's the way it was designed. We'll evaluate all of that at the end of the month."
When he was asked to clarify whether the suspension could be fewer than four games, Goodell was vague: "No, we'll make that decision on what the suspension is going to be at the end of the month."
Goodell said Roethlisberger has gone above and beyond what the commissioner asked him to do when he was suspended, but he will not let the Steelers know until later in the preseason if the suspension will be reduced. He said he has been encouraged by what he has seen from Roethlisberger thus far.
"He is doing great," Goodell said. "I had a chance to chat with him briefly and hopefully we'll talk again later today. I've been encouraged by what I have seen. He's understanding the seriousness of the issue. I think that's a very positive development."
Goodell's authority has come into question because of his inconsistencies when doling out suspensions to players. Roethlisberger was not arrested or charged with a crime, but others who have been arrested have not been suspended.
Several high-profile players have escaped punishment in recent months. Cincinnati running back Cedric Benson was not suspended for his role in a Texas bar fight in May. He previously was arrested twice for driving under the influence.
Tennessee quarterback Vince Young also did not receive a suspension after getting into a fight at a Dallas strip club in June. He was given a misdemeanor assault citation.
"The circumstances are a lot different [in those cases]," Goodell said. "You have to look at the facts of each one. You have to look at the facts and make the decision that is in the best interests of the indivdual. It's always a challenge because you're dealing with someone's future. And obviously the team. But you're really looking at the long term. What's going to change the behavior?"
Reserve quarterback Charlie Batch, who is an executive member of the player's association and the Steelers union representative, was asked whether the players want more clarity concerning Goodell's rules for suspension.
"No. 1, don't do anything that will make you see the commissioner," Batch said. "So then you don't have to deal with that. If you do, what is that process? We don't know. I can't speak from experience. Is there a lot of gray area in his personal conduct policy? Absolutely there is. If you need to appeal your suspension you have to see the same person who gave you the suspension. Is that right? No. But the bottom line is don't do anything so you don't have to deal with the consequences."
But Batch said Goodell's handling of suspensions is only a minor issue in the union's negotiations with the owners for a new collective bargaining agreement. This is the final year of a deal between the owners and players, and the owners have threatened to lock out the players next year if a new agreement is not reached.
"I'm sure that will be talked about [in negotiations], but I think that's farther down the line," Batch said. "I think everyone wants to see a deal get done and then iron out the wrinkles at the end because there are other major issues besides the personal conduct policy."
Goodell said his personal conduct policy "is always a discussion point" with the player's union.
Roethlisberger has been allowed to take part in training camp with teammates, but when the regular season begins he will not be allowed to be around the team. Goodell said he hopes Roethlisberger continues on a good path during his exile from the team.
"I hope he'll continue to focus on himself, continue to work on what his advisors are suggesting he needs to focus on and use it as a productive period for him."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.