Though I find it difficult to feel sorry for NFL players, with their multi-million dollar salaries and superstardom, I really have sympathy for Ben Roethlisberger.
No, seriously, I do.
Now that’s not to imply that I endorse his alleged offseason activities, including accusations of sexually assaulting a college student in Georgia. Such behavior is certainly deplorable, in the eyes of the media, the fans, the Steelers organization and the NFL.
However, I think the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell have overstepped their bounds on this issue in suspending Roethlisberger for the first six games of the 2010 season. The main reason for my stance is that Big Ben has not been faced with criminal charges or a civil lawsuit, and is unlikely to be charged in the future in relation to these incidents.
I find it immensely difficult to agree with sanctioning a person who, in the eyes of the law, has done nothing wrong aside from making some poor decisions.
While NFL players are certainly different from the average American employee, the fact remains that they are really just people employed by their respective franchises and, by extension, the NFL. I simply don’t believe that it is a fair bargain to take someone’s pay and livelihood away when they have not done anything wrong legally. Sure, Roethlisberger probably should not have been partying it up and drinking with underage girls; however, since the police have decided not to charge him, I don’t think the NFL is justified in leveling any sanctions on its own.
To move away from the Roethlisberger case to the bigger picture, the league’s “personal conduct policy” vastly oversteps the traditional limitations on the intrusion of employers into the personal lives of their employees. The policy, which holds that players can be punished for any “conduct detrimental to the league,” is far too broad and sweeping to be considered equitable to the players. What it really means is that players should not create any opportunities for the media to cast the league in a negative way–it is fundamentally a public-relations policy, designed to avoid the “thug” label that has been associated with the NBA and the Oregon football program.
While it might be tough to agree with this point of view, given that NFL athletes make so much money, imagine if all employers were to adopt similar policies. Any pictures of an employee doing stupid things that wound up on Facebook could result in removal of pay. Again, it just does not seem fair for employers to have the ability to stop paying employees just because they did something that was dumb (but not illegal).
Of course, given their celebrity status, players still have to face the court of public opinion. Fans all over the country will judge Roethlisberger negatively, even the Pittsburgh fans he won two Super Bowls for. Rumors are swirling that the Steelers may trade him somewhere else; though this is unlikely, I would have no issue with it, as such an action would fall within the bounds of the normal relationship between player and franchise.
However, I don’t even think that the justification for the personal conduct policy is valid. Fans and the media are judging Roethlisberger–not the Steelers, not the NFL, but just Ben Roethlisberger. Even after the much-publicized trade of another Steeler plagued by off-field issues, Santonio Holmes, the Pittsburgh organization retains its sterling reputation.
I also don’t disagree with the league taking action when a player has done something that is actually illegal. Had Roethlisberger been charged with sexual assault or some other crime, then the NFL would have been completely justified in leveling its own punishment. Employers in general should be allowed to terminate or suspend employment when an employee does something illegal, as it is entirely reasonable for an organization to not have convicted criminals working for it.
Just as an addition to that point, it is also important that, if the individual is acquitted, their status should be restored. We must retain the principle of innocent until proven guilty; it is unjust for someone to face enduring consequences for something he has been accused of, but actually didn’t do.
In the end, the NFL’s personal conduct policy and its ability to punish players outside of the legal system is a gross misuse of its power as an employer.
To Roger Goodell, I say: leave the policing to the police and the punishment to the court system, and get back to your real job of running the NFL.
Kabir Sawhney regularly vacations in Milledgeville. Ask him about anything except his personal conduct there at [email protected].