Ben Roethlisberger’s season, career threatened by sexual assault allegations

Ben Roethlisberger — starting quarterback for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and a two-time Super Bowl winner — is in more trouble than most observers realize. Big Ben’s forthcoming meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell aside, the media continues to underplay the potential seriousness of the allegations against him, and the impact it might have on his career and his employer. For those of you who remain unaware, in early March Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault by a 20-year-old student; the alleged assault taking place at a nightclub in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Point #1: Everyone seems to assume that because the allegations have been described as “sexual assault,” that a rape charge is not a possibility. I’m not so sure. I reviewed the Georgia Code (2009) in LexisNexis, and “Chapter 6: Sexual Offenses” includes a wide range of offenses, approximately a half-dozen of which could come into play in Roethlisberger’s situation:

There’s rape, which “shall be punished by death, by imprisonment for life without parole, by imprisonment for life, or by a split sentence that is a term of imprisonment for not less than 25 years and not exceeding life imprisonment, followed by probation for life.”  There’s also sodomy and aggravated sodomy, as well as public indecency, solicitation of sodomy, sexual battery and aggravated sexual battery. There’s even a crime of fornication: “An unmarried person commits the offense of fornication when he voluntarily has sexual intercourse with another person.” This offense probably hasn’t been enforced in ages, but if there’s any situation in which it might be invoked—this could be it. 

Many of the above are felonies and punishable by potentially long prison sentences, and include statutorily-defined minimum sentences.

Point #2: Assume for argument’s sake that Roethlisberger is charged with one or more of the above crimes. From a legal standpoint—not to mention expediency—his best course of action might be a plea bargain. That is, pleading guilty to a lesser offense or offenses in exchange for a less severe penalty (as opposed to enduring a long trial and risking conviction for a more serious crime). But that would leave the team’s ownership—the well-respected Rooney family—in a terribly awkward situation, as the team’s franchise player would then be an admitted sex offender. This might not be tenable for ownership, which could conceivably consider trading or even releasing Roethlisberger. Which brings me to …

Point #3: It’s ironic that the latest allegations against Roethlisberger were leveled on the same day the NFL dropped its salary cap. Barring re-instatement of a salary cap (in the league’s next collective bargaining agreement), the Steelers now have the option of releasing Roethlisberger without incurring any salary cap damage. (Never mind that releasing a franchise quarterback like Roethlisberger would amount to committing football suicide, especially when one considers that the only other QB the team has under contract for 2010 is Dennis Dixon, a former fifth-round draft pick who has started just one NFL game.) But prior to the dissolution of the salary cap, if the Steelers wanted to release Roethlisberger the team would have been hit with a 2010 cap charge of $18.9 million (the pro-rated amount of the $25.2 million signing bonus he received when he signed an eight year $102 million contract two offseasons ago). That’s $18.9 million the Steelers would not have been able to spend on other players next season. As it stands now, the Steelers can jettison Roethlisberger without any financial penalty. The organization might even be able to recoup money from him if it turns out criminal charges are filed, he’s convicted (or pleads guilty), and receives a prison sentence that prevents him from playing for the Steelers.

Point #4: In this case, the wheels of the investigative and legal process are likely to turn very slowly. Even in a best-case scenario for Roethlisberger and the Steelers, the situation is likely to interfere with the team’s preparations for the 2010 season. Barring a surprise resolution, the Steelers are going to need to sign a veteran quarterback in case Roethlisberger isn’t available for part or all of the 2010 season, and might even consider adding a QB in the forthcoming NFL draft (despite protests to the contrary). Note that the NFL does not need to wait for a conviction to invoke its personal conduct policy and suspend Roethlisberger from playing in the NFL. If Roethlisberger is charged with any crime, he’ll no doubt be suspended from playing at least four games, as he already faces a civil lawsuit from a Nevada woman, Andrea McNulty, who claims Roethlisberger sexually assaulted her in 2008.

In case you’re wondering, Roethlisberger is scheduled to earn a salary of $8,000,050 in 2010; he would stand to lose $470,591 for each week he is suspended from the NFL, as NFL salaries are prorated evenly over the course of 17 weeks. 

Conclusion: The best case scenario for Roethlisberger and the Steelers is that no criminal charges are filed and the NFL refrains from suspending him, but even then he still faces the civil lawsuit in Nevada, and likely another from his 20-year-old accuser in Georgia. In my estimation, Roethlisberger made a potentially critical mistake by talking to police before hiring legal counsel, an error that makes his defense team’s job much more difficult. At the very least, a suspension seems likely, and his public image has been permanently and irreparably tarnished.