Americans are well aware of the legal standard "innocent until proven guilty."
It is a phrase that epitomizes our sense of fairness, our creed of being a nation of laws, not men. It is, however, only a legal standard. In the mind of the public, the accused are often guilty whether or not they are ever proven to be so. I needn't go into the details of the O.J. Simpson case to prove my point.
This is where Pittsburgh Steelers fans find themselves today. Ben Roethlisberger, their two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, has been proven guilty of nothing. He has never been charged with a crime (except riding a motorcycle without a helmet without the proper license).
In the minds of many however, he is guilty of something.
Some say it is poor judgement, embarrassing the league and the team. Others will still believe that he raped a college girl in the cramped bathroom of a Georgia nightclub. We are free to believe what we like. We aren't bound by the concept of "innocent until proven guilty"—only the legal system is.
The NFL also has no such standard. You are guilty if the commissioner thinks you are guilty. You can be punished for perception, not reality. That is the price you pay to be part of a league where you can become incredibly famous and fabulously wealthy.
Most of us aren't held to such a high standard at our own jobs.
If we go out and get loaded, do something stupid for which we are not ultimately charged or convicted, we probably are not going to be fired or otherwise punished by our employer. But our transgressions don't make headlines or lead the local news.
A star quarterback is a different story entirely.
All of these points might lead you to believe that I think Commissioner Goodell is within his right to suspend Ben Roethlisberger for the incident in the Georgia nightclub.
Quite the contrary.
What do we know about the case: Ben and a very drunk college co-ed ended up in a 5'x 5' employee restroom where Roethlisberger had some sort of sexual contact with the girl. What exactly that was, we're not sure. We know she said she wasn't raped, they had sex, and that she had refused his advances at some point. He claims they did not have intercourse, but admits there was sexual contact.
What really happened? We don't know and probably never will.
Did Roethlisberger take advantage of a highly intoxicated girl, or was it consensual until she had a change of heart?
What we do know is that it didn't amount to a crime in the eyes of a Georgia District Attorney. All of this is embarrassing to Ben, the girl, the team, and the league.
But does it merit a suspension?
There are some who says this is the latest incident in a pattern of poor behavior by Ben. They point to the civil suit filed in Nevada accusing him of sexual assault. And they never fail to mention his motorcycle crash. In the Nevada incident, there are many indications that the suit is without merit, and the woman behind it may have emotional issues.
As for the motorcycle accident, Ben could have had the proper license and still put his face through the windshield. He also could have been wearing a helmet and still suffered the same serious injuries. He wasn't the one at fault in the crash.
What other evidence is there against Ben? Where is the mountain of character flaws and potentially improper behavior that have damaged his reputation and sullied the team and league?
It is in the imagination of those who want to pull him down, people who simply do not like him for whatever reason. They whisper about "other allegations," or how they've heard he's been a jerk to autograph seekers.
Is what we know, or think we know, about this case sufficient cause for Goodell (or the Steelers) to suspend Roethlisberger? I don't think so.
Ultimately, the uncertainty of what Ben really did should mitigate his punishment. I believe that Ben should be ordered to undergo alcohol counseling as well as mandatory therapy for sexual issues. These are steps that send a message without creating a precedent that could deepen the rift between the league and its players.
You might ask why I am advocating punishment for Ben despite my assertion that we don't know what, if anything, he has actually done wrong. As I have pointed out, Ben doesn't have the advantage of being "innocent until proven guilty" in the court of public opinion.
The fact that he was accused is enough to bring down the wrath of the league. But that wrath should be measured by the fact that he has never been arrested, never been charged, and has not faced trial for anything.
Ben is "guilty until proven innocent" in the eyes of many, including the Steelers and the NFL. But, since he can never actually prove that innocence, the punishment should be less than a suspension.