An inadequate punishment is still punishment


As you probably know, Ben Roethlisberger won’t be jailed for raping a woman in Georgia. Indeed, he won’t even be tried. After investigation, the prosecutor decided he lacked sufficient evidence to convict the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, and while Roethlisberger may face a civil suit (as he already is in a similar incident in Lake Tahoe), he will not face criminal charges.

As anyone who’s followed any criminal case involving sexual assault knows, this is not surprising. Cases of date rape are incredibly hard to prove. They often involve smears and personal attacks on victims by defense attorneys and, in high-profile cases like this, the media. The police often cover up incidents, or take them less than seriously. This is something that predators rely on to avoid punishment. And sadly, all too often they succeed. Even in this case, where there were witnesses backing up the victim, rich, connected men are able to find a way to avoid facing the music

But while Roethlisberger will not be found guilty of a crime in this case, that does not mean he is innocent, and indeed, in his statement to the media, the prosecutor liberally hinted that he thought a rape had occurred, going so far as to refer to the victim in this case as, well, “the victim.” And this is not an isolated incident, but rather a pattern of behavior that indicates strongly that while Roethlisberger might be free from conviction, he is not free from guilt; if anything, the evidence strongly suggests that he is a predatory rapist.

This leaves the NFL and the Pittsburgh Steelers in a bit of a conundrum. Roethlisberger is clearly a horrible individual, and while it’s possible that all these incidences of alleged sexual assault are just examples of women making things up, those odds get longer every day. And yet Roethlisberger has neither been convicted of a crime, nor has he even lost a lawsuit. And so while everyone has their suspicions about Roethlisberger, absolute proof of guilt is lacking.

And so the punishment handed down by the NFL — a six-game suspension (with possible time off for good behavior) for violation of the league’s personal conduct policy — is not enough…and yet it’s also not nothing.

Roethlisberger’s case gets compared to that of fellow quarterback Michael Vick, who served time in prison for running a dogfighting ring. And it’s easy to say that Roethlisberger is getting off easy — compared to Vick, he is. But it’s hard to say that the NFL is treating Roethlisberger more leniently. Vick was suspended indefinitely in August of 2007, but that suspension was tied to his conviction, and was largely symbolic, as he was unlikely to play much while incarcerated.

Once he left jail, he was conditionally reinstated, but his suspension was extended six games into the 2009 season — with time off for good behavior, which he got. In other words, Roethlisberger is being suspended for as much of the next season as Vick was the day he stepped out of prison, convicted of a felony. The NFL, in short, is punishing Roethlisberger as severely as it did Vick, with the caveat that Roethlisberger has managed to avoid jail time, so far.

This suggests that the NFL is aware that Roethlisberger is a rapist and a degenerate. They may not be able to prove it. They may not be able to punish him indefinitely like the could a convicted felon. But they are treating him the same as they did a convicted felon.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers — an organization that has prided itself on having good character — have begun shopping Roethlisberger, hoping to get a high draft pick for a quarterback who led the franchise to two titles. They may not get enough to jettison him, but they’re certainly showing that they’re not that interested in keeping a serial rapist for the long term.

Is all this enough? Of course not. In a just world, Roethlisberger’s transgressions would have landed him in prison long ago. But it’s not nothing. The NFL could have treated Roethlisberger’s actions in Georgia with a wink and a nod, a “boys will be boys” attitude, and a smear of the victim. The Steelers could have circled the wagons, clucked “not our Ben,” and pushed for a mitigation of the punishment. Instead, both the team and the league are treating Roethlisberger’s actions as serious, as wrong, and as punishable. That may not be enough. But in the long struggle to undo rape culture, it’s not nothing, either.