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Goodell's done well with discipline, but he's created a double standard

I won't defend Ben Roethlisberger. I would rather face an oncoming pass rush blindfolded than defend Roethlisberger. I wouldn't want him anywhere near my barstool, let alone my female friends.

But ... I must ask: how can NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspend Roethlisberger for six games and tell Raiders coach Tom Cable to keep on keepin' on?

As you have surely heard by now, Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for six games (which can be reduced to four if certain "conditions" are met) after the Steelers quarterback turned a night in Milledgeville, Ga., into an episode of Girls Gone Wild Meet Quarterbacks Gone Stupid. "Stupid" might be too kind.

Officially, Roethlisberger was suspended for plying underage college students with drinks, and, well, whatever else he did that night. Roethlisberger was not charged with sexual assault, but the facts and interviews that have come out sure make it seem like he could have been. Roethlisberger already has a civil suit pending for an alleged sexual assault in Nevada.

I understand the anger toward Roethlisberger. I understand why he was suspended.

But why does a player get six games and a coach like Cable gets squat?

Cable was accused last year of breaking assistant coach Randy Hanson's jaw in an unprovoked attack in training camp. Cable, like Roethlisberger, has never been convicted of a crime. He avoided prosecution for allegedly hitting Hansen at least partly because people who are beholden to him vouched for him. (Raiders assistant coaches would not corroborate Hansen's story.)

And like Roethlisberger, Cable has been on the wrong side of accusations before. ESPN reported last year that his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend each said he hit them, and that a third woman, Cable's second-wife, said in divorce documents that "in the past he has been physically and verbally abusive to me."

That is a larger pattern of misconduct than Roethlisberger's. Cable has been accused by four people; Roethlisberger was accused by two. Roethlisberger can plausibly argue that his civil suit in Nevada is just a money-grab by the alleged rape survivor. (I am absolutely not saying I agree. I'm just saying that would be his defense, and a man is entitled to a defense.) Cable can't make that argument.

If you read Goodell's public letter to Roethlisberger, so much of it applies to Cable, too.

"Your conduct raises sufficient concerns that I believe effective intervention now is the best step for your personal and professional welfare. ... I urge you to take full advantage of this opportunity to get your life and career back on track."

The commissioner told Cable he did not violate the league's conduct policy. Hanson is now suing the Raiders. The Raiders are trying to move the case out of the courtroom and into arbitration -- with Goodell as the arbitrator. In other words, Goodell would have to choose between the Raiders (who employ him) and Hanson (whose claims he has already effectively dismissed). Gee, I wonder who would win that one.

When Goodell took over for Paul Tagliabue, he inherited a wildly successful league with a perception problem. Michael Vick had his dogfighting ring. Pac-Man Jones had a habit of walking into strip clubs and causing mayhem. A few high-profile arrests gave people the idea that NFL players were a bunch of thugs.

Goodell could have ignored the problem. To his credit, he has not. He appointed himself league sheriff and meted out some real discipline. But there appears to be a serious double standard between players' misconduct and coaches' misconduct.

Let us not forget: this all started with an image problem. The league was dealing with lousy publicity.

And speaking of publicity:

After sitting out the first six games of the season (or perhaps four), Roethlisberger is scheduled to return Oct. 31 ... in a Sunday Night Football game against the Super Bowl champion Saints. The next week, he faces the rival Bengals on Monday Night Football. Then Roethlisberger faces the team of the last decade, the Patriots, in another Sunday night game.

Yes, Roethlisberger will play three straight nationally televised games after he returns from one of the most publicized suspensions in sports history. I would believe in the tooth fairy, the Loch Ness Monster and anything John Edwards says before I'd believe this is a coincidence.

Apparently Goodell is outraged enough to suspend Roethlisberger, but not too outraged to use Roethlisberger's return from suspension to boost TV ratings.

Goodell, I'm afraid, is reinforcing an long-standing sports-world belief: that players are always subservient to coaches, and therefore must conform to a narrower standard acceptable behavior. Coaches can be individuals, yell to get their point across and even use force. Players are supposed to take it, for the good of the team.

It is 2010. If anything, coaches should be held to a higher behavioral standard than players. They are higher on the organizational food chain. They have more power. If I ran a team, I would be much more understanding of a 25-year-old player messing up than if a 50-year-old coach did. I would be livid if a general manager or team president did it.

This bring us to the NBA, where Chicago Bulls vice president John Paxson and coach Vinny Del Negro recently had some kind of physical altercation in the Bulls' offices. NBA commissioner David Stern is taking a wait-and-see-if-it-will-go-away approach to this one. NBA spokesman Tim Frank said "the situation is under review."

The situation is now a week-and-a-half old. How much reviewing needs to be done? The NBA would never wait that long to deal with this kind of accusation against a player. Latrell Sprewell was suspended before he had even removed his hands from P.J. Carlesimo's neck.

In his public comments about the incident, Stern said "It sounded to me like what we call a scuffle in practice." No, it wasn't. Basketball practices are, by definition, physical activities; it is natural that when emotions boil, players react with physical actions.

Paxson is an executive accused of shoving an employee. The level of physical contact is in debate, but any contact is not acceptable.

And, since Stern was a lawyer before he took over the sports league, he should ask: what if this happened again? What if Del Negro sued? By doing nothing, would the NBA be tacitly approving Paxson's actions?

Stern is the best sports commissioner of my lifetime. He has managed to build a league that is so big and successful that, paradoxically, it obscures his achievement -- people no longer think of the NBA as a late-20th century success story, but as a league fighting to hold its ground. And he has done it, thankfully, without sucking the personality out of his stars.

Like Goodell, Stern may have good intentions. But they both need to step back and ask if they have a double standard. This is not the first time this has come up. Former Lions assistant coach Joe Cullen was arrested twice in one week -- once for driving naked into a Wendy's drive-thru and then for driving drunk while speeding at night with his headlights off. Cullen was suspended for two games (one by the Lions, one by the league).

Goodell's overall body of work remains impressive, especially as it relates to discipline. He obviously takes the public behavior of his players far more seriously than predecessor Tagliabue did. But the sheriff's jurisdiction should cover the whole league, not just the players. His public letter to Roethlisberger might as well have ended like this:

If you want to misbehave, become a coach.

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