Fallout far from over for suspended Roethlisberger, Steelers

While the conditional six-game suspension of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy seems like the exclamation point to an ugly, dubious and sordid six weeks, the fallout is just beginning.

I'm not referring to how talk of this discipline will burn up the sports news cycle until the NFL draft kicks it to the curb Thursday evening. And I'm not talking about other players using this severe punishment as a deterrent because, in all likelihood, it won't be for everyone.

There will continue to be unseen collateral damage from this, as it pertains to Roethlisberger, the Steelers and the league, months from now.

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The NFL muted some of the potential fires by keeping Roethlisberger away until he completes what NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called a "comprehensive behavioral evaluation by medical professionals." The specifics of that treatment aren't known. However, the suspension can be reduced to four games if Roethlisberger meets certain requirements, or his punishment can be expanded if he doesn't.

That decision must be viewed as serious because the league spoke to countless people, including current and former players, about Roethlisberger's off-field behavior -- not just those who investigated the sexual assault allegations stemming from a March 5 incident between him and a 20-year-old college student in Georgia. Somewhere, NFL investigators heard enough common information for Goodell to say in a letter to Roethlisberger, "I believe effective intervention now is the best step for your personal and professional welfare."

That is serious.

Steelers president Art Rooney II said on a conference call Wednesday that the team is in full agreement with the discipline that was handed down and seemed set to impose similar sanctions -- although the team could only suspend a player for four games. He would not deny any potential trade talk regarding Roethlisberger but also said, "Obviously we've had a number of conversations (him and Roethlisberger) and it is his intent to follow the program the commissioner sets out. Our hope and expectation is that that's what he's going to do."

Rehabilitation of the player, not disposing of him, seems like the intention -- unless they get a whopper of an offer from a team willing to take on a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback whose future as a person and player are unknown.

In the wake of all this, the Steelers have to find out what and who they are.

The questions to teammates about Roethlisberger won't let up. In covering Michael Vick's dogfighting case, not a week went by when a court date, an anniversary of sorts, something didn't trigger a Vick-related issue. That will happen here, too, and players and coaches will get sick of it. That doesn't mean the questions will stop, so they better get ready.

Some, undoubtedly, will resent Roethlisberger for putting them in this position.

Current quarterbacks Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch and  recently reacquired Byron Leftwich are now thrust into the limelight. They will take all the snaps during mini-camps, OTAs and the majority of them in training camp. One of them, if not more, will take the lead in a disjointed locker room that wasn't overly keen on Roethlisberger.

Should Roethlisberger complete his treatment as prescribed, he will be back for training camp and the preseason, opening up new issues: How many snaps will he take in practice and games? How will his teammates take to him? How will Dixon or Leftwich feel about that? These might seem like simple things to contend with, but in a 53-man locker room, these are legitimate issues.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin has to incorporate Roethlisberger somehow. The QB has to play some in the preseason so he's not totally rusty when he returns. But does he play with the fourth string and risk injury as a make-shift offensive line goes against a defense full of guys who'd love to earn a roster spot at Roethlisberger's expense?

And after that buildup, Roethlisberger will be gone again, exiled for at least four games for his suspension (the team won't lose a roster spot because he will be placed on a suspended list). More chemistry questions could arise.

Here's the interesting part, though. Let's assume it's only a four game suspension. Leftwich or Dixon goes 3-1 or 4-0 in that time. Then it's a bye week. What do the Steelers do? For an organization that is bigger than any player, Roethlisberger can't be re-inserted as the starter. In that scenario, the locker room could get blown to smithereens. How far back on the depth chart does Roethlisberger go, though?

Now, let's assume the Steelers go 1-3 or 0-4. Can Roethlisberger, who's been away for a month (he can't do anything with the team while suspended), be injected into a lineup as the life preserver? You would think so. However, turning things around could take time. Plus, although the other quarterbacks lost the games, Roethlisberger will take even more heat for letting the team down with his behavior that led to his suspension.

Outside of all this, you hope that Roethlisberger is learning that he has to grow up and turn his life around. He got another chance by not being criminally charged and receiving a suspension that could get him back on the field for 12 regular season games. He's also been afforded off-field help and guidance.

As tough of a suspension as Goodell handed out to a player who was not charged with a crime, he did extend help. If Roethlisberger doesn't adhere to it fully, football will be taken away from him. If he does, then that's a sign that the sport, his teammates, his family and most importantly, himself, are priorities.

Roethlisberger is not expected to fight against the punishment, which is probably the smart play. His image is mud now and to continue talking about what did or didn't happen in a bathroom stall with a 20-year-old college student might continue to dredge up things nobody wants to hear about, especially the NFL and the Steelers.

Another issue that needs to be addressed with Roethlisberger's punishment was the role that alcohol played. Goodell is very serious about cracking down on alcohol-related problems, and there is no doubt that one of the reasons for the severity of Roethlisberger's discipline was that alcohol was a component in his behavior that night in Milledgeville, Ga.

"The extensive investigatory record shows that you contributed to the irresponsible consumption of alcohol by purchasing (or facilitating the purchase of) alcoholic beverages for underage college students, at least some of whom were likely already intoxicated," Goodell stated in his letter to Roethlisberger. "There is no question that the excessive consumption of alcohol that evening put the students and yourself at risk. The personal conduct policy also states that discipline is appropriate for conduct that 'undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL players.'

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"By any measure, your conduct satisfies that standard."

If alcohol, drugs or guns are involved in anything the league considers unbecoming to its personal conduct code -- which is very wide-ranging -- the greater the chance for severe discipline.

The unnerving part about all this is that this punishment might not deter other players from pushing the envelope when they're facing similar situations. The sense of entitlement some players feel will always lead to a few pushing the envelope. Add liquor and the usual late-night carousing of youth, and the potential is there for trouble.

Most players, coaches and NFL employees get it. They're grownups, and we have to carry ourselves in the appropriate manner. There are only a small group of people who expose themselves, and thus, the league, to wrongdoing and image decay. In our world, though, that small group carries a lot of sway.

People are more hung up on the "Octomom" -- and Roethlisberger -- than parents who raise their kids in obscurity or with players who tutor or spend time with the homeless. Goodell and the NFL know this, which is why they are trying so hard to keep players from feeding into the monster that is bad news.

The message has been cast and re-emphasized. Those who don't want to listen or think they're above it all pay the price. Accountability on and off the field is the way of the NFL. Roethlisberger has shown, for the most part, that on the field, he can be relied upon and trusted.

Once he gets through what he has to get through, he must carry that over into real life.

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