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Benson deserves NFL suspension but not the way this came about

Cedric Benson can't stay out of trouble. His impressive arrest record is more suited for COPS than the NFL. You might suggest any punishment commissioner Roger Goodell hands him, he deserves. Including the three-gamer Benson received last week. How many of us could take four arrests in three years -- two for assault, two for driving/boating while intoxicated -- and still find lucrative employment?

Benson's no prince. You could argue he's a chronic knucklehead. His life and career are symptomatic of what sometimes ails professional sports. Rich guys doing stupid things and getting their jobs back because they can play.

Wasn't it just a year ago Benson appeared at the foot of the commissioner, pleading for leniency after his involvement in an offseason bar fight in Austin, Texas? Goodell forgave him then, sternly. As Benson recalled this week, "It was kinda like it would be tough to work in my favor if I showed up [in Goodell's office] again.''

Well whaddaya know.

On July 17, Austin cops arrested the Cincinnati Bengals running back on yet another assault charge. On Tuesday, he was back on the carpet. Goodell suspended him for three games.

Sounds reasonable. The commissioner has made personal conduct his personal issue. Given the league's need for an agreeable image to sell to corporate money-spenders, it's not a bad topic for Goodell to push. No one would suggest Ced Benson was not worthy of the commissioner's attention.

But here's the thing. Actually, here are a few things.

Benson's latest legal dust-up came when he was entirely unemployed. Not only had owners locked him out of his place of business, but also he was an unrestricted free agent. No league owned him. No team held his rights. Technically, Benson could have been an unemployed roller of bubble-gum cigars.

How can Goodell suspend an unemployed bubble-gum cigar roller?

The commissioner has set the pro sports standard for wielding a big club when the issue is personal conduct. His rulings have been seen as autocratic, arbitrary and unilateral. Ask James Harrison, Pittsburgh linebacker, whom Goodell fined more than $100,000 last year, some of it for hits that weren't even penalized. Ask Terrelle Pryor, college kid suspended for five pro games for things he did in college.

Ask Hines Ward, Harrison's teammate, arrested for DUI over the summer. Goodell hasn't taken a day or a dollar from Ward.

And there is this: Benson believes NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith sold him down the river.

In what has become known as the "side-letter agreement'' to the new collective bargaining agreement, Smith agreed to allow Goodell to suspend eight of 33 players involved in incidents during the lockout. All eight are repeat violators of the league's personal conduct policy.

Benson said Wednesday he was "caught off guard by the players association, honestly. I mean, that's the players association. They're supposed to be all for one. Supposed to have the best interests of the players in mind.''

Dee Smith's making $1.8 million to serve the players' best interests. You could argue that if he felt any new collective bargaining agreement hinged on Goodell's ability to punish employees his league had declared jobless, Smith was right to relent on that point. What you can't argue is that the contentious issue should have been presented to the people he is paid to represent, before he OK'd it.

Bengals player rep Andrew Whitworth said this week it was his understanding that under the new CBA, Goodell would be allowed to admonish the locked-out miscreants, but not punish them. "That would have been an issue, if I'd known how it was really going to be,'' Whitworth said.

If you cut a side deal independent of your constituents, with the guys who have kept your constituents from working for several months, how much trust have you inspired?

If you are Goodell, when is your stewardship seen as benevolent and just, and when are you seen as a county jailer?

Benson attended his suspension appeal Tuesday. He called it a "good meeting,'' yet came away more skeptical at the good his union was doing him. "One of the big things [the league] was putting their hat on was the letter with the NFLPA,'' said Benson.

By the way, none of the seven other repeat offenders has been suspended.

Benson said he doesn't mind blazing a trail on this issue. He has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, against the NFL Players Association. A prominent player agent told me this week that the NLRB normally handles disputes between unions and management, not between a union member and his union. But Benson's main point -- that the players association gave away his right to work -- isn't untenable.

"The evidence is right there in front of them,'' Benson said. "If I have to be the one to stand up and face some things, to make some changes, whether with the PA or the NFL, that's something I have to do.''

Meantime, his appeal hasn't been resolved. Benson will play for the Bengals Sunday. After that?

"There hasn't been a decision on how many games, or if there will be any games,'' said Benson. "I just want to go out there and kick some butt, just in case, for whatever reason, I'm not out there after this weekend. I want to end on a big note.''

What looks to be the end now could be just the beginning of Benson's legal game. He deserves the punishment. But not how it came about.

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