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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The NFL's Race Card

Since 2006, 16 players have been suspended under commissioner Roger Goodell's personal conduct policy. None will have more significance than Ben Roethlisberger's six-game suspension.

The highest profile suspension under Sheriff Goodell's watch was Michael Vick. Expect Roethlisberger's banishment to resonate longer primarily because of one reason: he's the first big name white player to be punished.

There's zero evidence any of Goodell's suspensions have ever been racially motivated. He's been consistent in his mission for the personal conduct policy: protect the league. Yet it can't be ignored that this suspension feels different because it involves so many firsts -- the first noticeable blemish for the reputable Steelers organization, the first disgraced Super Bowl quarterback, and yes, the first white quarterback to end up in the commish's doghouse.

Media watchdogs were watching closely to see whether Goodell would administer a slap on the wrist or come down hard on Big Ben. In the end, the six-game suspension was just right. Ben is the first player under the policy to be suspended without being formally charged of a crime, a fact that Goodell felt little remorse for in his public letter to Roethlisberger:

"I recognize that the allegations in Georgia were disputed and that they did not result in criminal charges being filed against you," said Goodell. "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."

The message since Goodell arrived has always been clear: players no longer have the luxury of waiting for the legal system to bail them out. It's even clearer now that players see that no demographic is immune to the commish's iron fist. Players who put themselves in compromising situations are in danger of earning themselves a very public trip to the principal's office.

Goodell has succeeded in striking fear into the hearts of players. He's built his brief tenure around his personal conduct policy. Both the players union and owners agree the policy has helped the league immensley. This was evident by Steelers owner Art Rooney's reaction to the news that he was losing his franchise quarterback for nearly half the season: "I agree and support the decision the commissioner made today."

The suspension of one of the NFL's biggest names is a wake up call for players debating whether or not to pop another bottle. They might even start seeing Goodell's reflection staring back at them instead of a scantily clad co-ed sitting across the bar (call it Goodell goggles).

Big Ben will have his chance at redemption. Reports that he's being shopped for draft picks are nothing more than a smokescreen the organization is using to warn their quarterback that they won't tolerate any further incidents. His suspension will not define his legacy if he focuses on football and earns his way back into the good graces of Goodell. He knows another trip to the principal's office will likely be his last.


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