Ben Roethlisberger has looked like a changed man at training camp.
He’s playing well on the field and behaving himself off it.
Coaches are saying it. Players are saying it. Even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell – the same man who suspended the Steelers quarterback for six games under the league’s personal conduct policy – is saying it.
“I think his effort and his focus (have gone beyond expectations),” Goodell said after the team’s practice at St. Vincent College on Thursday morning. “He hasn’t just done what he’s been told to do. I think he’s worked really hard to try to improve and focus on himself and understand what he’s been through and what he’s going to do differently going forward. I think that’s a very positive thing.”
So positive, in fact, that there was talk of reducing Roethlisberger’s penalty. The NFL’s initial announcement said that the suspension could be reduced from six games to four, but Goodell wouldn’t rule out cutting it even further.
“I’ll make that decision later this month,” Goodell said when asked if four games was the absolute minimum suspension.
“That’s the way it was designed, and we’ll evaluate all of that at the end of the month.”
The NFL later clarified that four games is the minimum for the suspension, and with good reason.
The punishment appears to be an effective one so far.
Roethlisberger seems to have gotten the message that despite his “Big Ben” nickname, he’s not bigger than the game. He quickly went from western Pennsylvania hero to being dropped as spokesman for a beef jerky maker after public opinion about him plummeted.
Multiple allegations of sexual assault can have that kind of impact on an image.
While fans and many media members wrote off a civil suit filed against Roethlisberger by a woman in Lake Tahoe, Nev., in 2009 that accused the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback of sexual assault, a second accusation this spring was impossible to overlook.
After police in Milledgeville, Ga., investigated a 20-year-old college student’s claims that Roethlisberger sexually assaulted her in a bar rest room, public sentiment turned quickly. The No. 7 jerseys that had been so popular across Steeler Nation stopped selling. There were calls to cut or trade Roethlisberger, and fans vowed to boo him no matter how he played.
And then the NFL got involved. Roethlisberger was never charged in the case, but Goodell suspended him and ordered a behavioral evaluation.
Since then, Roethlisberger has worked to rehabilitate himself and his image.
“I wanted to show (Goodell) that I would do everything that he asked and then some,” Roethlisberger said. “Just kind of let it be known that I want to get back out here as soon as I can to be with my guys.”
Goodell has taken notice.
“I think he’s understanding the seriousness of the issue and working to improve and to make better decisions. I think that’s a very positive development,” the commissioner said of Roethlisberger. “He’s got to work through the program that was designed for him. A lot of that is confidential, but he’s done it and he’s done it with enthusiasm. That’s a good thing.”
An even better thing – for Roethlisberger and the team – will occur if Goodell sticks to his original plan and doesn’t reduce the suspension to anything less than four games.
The 28-year-old quarterback seems to be learning that there are consequences to his actions. Any further reduction would lessen the impact of the lesson and reinforce the notion that star athletes get special treatment, and that all will be forgiven at the slightest sign of remorse.
That would be counterproductive for Roethlisberger, the Steelers and the NFL.
“I think what we’re doing here is to change behavior and, hopefully, helping individuals make better decisions, which will serve them well in the long term,” Goodell said.
The best decision Goodell can make is to take notice of Roethlisberger’s efforts, make him sit out four games and hope that the positive developments continue.
Eric Knopsnyder is the sports editor of The Tribune-Democrat.