The six-game suspension of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger provides a perfect illustration of the difference between a court of law and a court of public opinion.
Twice in the last two years Roethlisberger has been accused of sexual assault, twice authorities have investigated and twice they have declined to press charges.
To drag Roethlisberger to trial on criminal charges the prosecutors would have to believe they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed the crimes. Since there was no hard evidence and both cases boiled down to he said/she said, the prosecutors wisely decided against proceeding. Being able to prove something "beyond a reasonable doubt" is the bar prosecutors must clear, and it is the shield for all defendants or potential defendants to assure they are not railroaded.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell looked at much of the same information and slapped the quarterback with a suspension that will cost him an estimated $2.8 million. Goodell pointed to the NFL's conduct policy as his authority and justification.
In the court of public opinion, Goodell doesn't have to prove Roethlisberger is guilty of a crime. He simply has to believe Roethlisberger's actions are not consistent with the image the NFL wants to protect. Roethlisberger's alleged actions were sufficient for his employer to take action.
The same scenario plays out in companies across the country on a regular basis. Companies, whether they are as large and powerful as the NFL or as small and humble as a mom-and-pop grocery, have an obligation to their customers and other employees to be honest, professional and responsible.
No one wants to do business with or support a company that is perceived as dishonest, disreputable or otherwise tainted by scandal or corruption.
Goodell said it well when he wrote Roethlisberger that "... you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct ... that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans."
Goodell has used the conduct policy to lower the boom on 16 players in less than four years as commissioner. Big Ben is the first one who had not been arrested or charged with a crime.
We can only hope this situation will open some eyes in the NFL, in other sports and in other businesses. In what has become an era of anything goes where we have excuses, rationalizations and accommodations for everything from drug abuse to use of weapons to domestic violence, it's about time we as a nation stood up and said "Enough is enough. We are going to hold you accountable."
Goodell did just that. As did the Pennsylvania State Police when it informed Trooper Ed Joyner he could no longer work for Roethlisberger. Joyner was present at the alleged assault and "he is alleged to have demeaned the image" of the state police.
The rules of the game haven't changed. They are finally being enforced.