The NFL flexed its muscles in the NBA's face last week, running out its 2010 schedule reveal and draft in prime time, paying no regard to the opening round of the basketball playoffs. The numbers show another football victory. According to the TV ratings, twice as many viewers chose college players in suits putting on NFL-logo caps over LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in uniform competing in playoff games. But I wonder if the numbers won't eventually show that it was also the week in which NFL commissioner Roger Goodell backed himself into a disciplinary corner, a trap his NBA counterpart David Stern has been able to avoid.
The biggest NFL story of the week wasn't the launch of professional careers at a red-carpet event in New York City. It was the culmination of an encounter in a bar bathroom in Milledgeville, Ga. Goodell issued a six-game suspension for Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after Roethlisberger was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman in a nightclub bathroom. Roethlisberger was not arrested and the district attorney in the Georgia city in which the alleged incident occurred did not file charges. Similarly, no criminal charges were filed in relation to a rape accusation in Nevada that brought a still-pending civil lawsuit against Roethlisberger last year.
So all it took to incur Goodell's wrath was a pattern of questionable judgment. That's the precarious standard he has established.
Young athletic men brought up with a sense of entitlement in a society that objectifies women are going to make bad decisions -- especially when alcohol is involved. But how bad is too bad? It's a variable. And with variables come inconsistency, and sometimes even hypocrisy.
Stern has avoided this predicament by waiting for the legal process to run its course before dictating what -- if any -- punishment to render. After Bryant was charged with sexual assault in the summer of 2003, he played the entire season with Stern's approval. Afterward, the case against Bryant was dropped before a trial even began.
For Stern, a Columbia Law School graduate who began working for the NBA as a legal counsel, it's about a respect for the judicial system and an unwillingness to supersede it. There's also the fear that any action he takes in advance of a judge or jury decision could actually prejudice the process.
Even when there was little dispute over the accusation that Gilbert Arenas brought guns into the Washington Wizards' locker room, Stern was willing to let Arenas keep playing. At least, he was until Arenas made light of the situation in interviews and Twitter posts and that notorious pantomime in pregame introductions. Even the ensuing suspension was, in some measure, designed to protect Arenas from himself. Prosecutors used Arenas' actions and apparent lack of remorse in recommending he serve jail time. By forcing him out of the public eye, it's possible Stern saved Arenas from further missteps. As it turned out, a judge sentenced Arenas to 30 days in a halfway house.
A commissioner should protect and promote his players, not just punish them. Goodell, by placing "the shield" above individuals, risks occasionally trampling on his players' rights, especially when he steps into the murky world of he-said, she-said.
Remember the case of Nina Shahravan, who accused two Dallas Cowboys of sexually assaulting her? It turned out she was the one who committed an offense -- perjury -- in fabricating the story. What if Goodell was in the commissioner's office then and suspended the players before that truth came to light?
He acted on Michael Vick and Adam "Pacman" Jones before verdicts were rendered. That practically forced his hand on Roethlisberger, with a potentially volatile racial component added to the mix, along with this question: Would Goodell be as tough on the white quarterback of one of the league's marquee franchises as he would be on African-American players?
The answer was yes. But now the question is whether Roethlisberger is being treated unfairly because he's so high-profile.
On the 13th page of the same USA Today sports section that carried the Roethlisberger suspension story on its cover was a brief note that the Indianapolis Colts would not punish defensive tackle Eric Foster, who is the target of a civil lawsuit by a 22-year-old woman who claims Foster sexually assaulted her in his hotel room in the early morning hours before the AFC Championship Game. Police have investigated the incident and did not file charges. On the surface, it's just like the Roethlisberger situation. Or is it the NFL's policy that two accusations are the threshold? (See Lester Munson's analysis of the two cases here.)
Stern has avoided that thorny path. When there are scratch marks on a coach's neck, or images of players causing mayhem in the stands broadcast on national TV, he has acted swiftly and severely. When the law suggests patience and prudence, he has acted accordingly.
He and his players are both better off for that approach. The NFL doesn't win every time. It only seems that way.