Goodell unfairly rats out Steelers over Big Ben

Editor’s note: Sports Illustrated writer Peter King issued a clarification on a quote attributed to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell regarding Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

DALLAS – For months now Ben Roethlisberger(notes) and the Pittsburgh Steelers have been working to put the past in the past. They’ve attempted to flip the script on that drunken night in Milledgeville, Ga. and make something good come out of what, at the very best, was a series of poor and classless decisions by their star quarterback.

Roethlisberger has been more open with fans. He’s been more polite with the media. He’s gotten engaged to be married and, it’s been said, has become more of a homebody. His teammates, coaches and the organization as a whole have welcomed him back into the fold. It’s one reason the Steelers are playing Green Bay in Sunday’s Super Bowl.

“He came back, he’s a changed man and he’s playing good football,” receiver Hines Ward(notes) said, summing it up after the AFC championship game.

Super Bowl media day is Tuesday and amid that feeding frenzy Roethlisberger was sure to face some pressure about the mistakes of last summer and beyond.

And that was before Roger Goodell foolishly went and breathed new life into the old story.

For reasons Goodell needs to explain, the NFL commissioner commented to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King about investigating Roethlisberger last offseason, a process that resulted in a six-game suspension (reduced to four).

[Related: Super Bowl-bound Big Ben bad for NFL?]

King released an excerpt of Goodell’s comments (more to appear in this week’s magazine) that painted Roethlisberger as an ostracized member of the Steelers and, more importantly, threw nearly two dozen NFL players under the bus. Some (most?) of them were likely Steeler teammates.

“I bet two dozen players … not one, not a single player, went to his defense. It wasn’t personal in a sense, but all kinds of stories like, ‘He won’t sign my jersey.’ ”

This isn’t a defense (or a condemnation) of Roethlisberger’s actions. The comment isn’t, in and of itself, a bombshell. It was completely unnecessary though, especially coming from the commissioner. And it was patently unfair for the other Steeler players who cooperated in the investigation into their quarterback.

All of the Steelers are “players.” And by using an absolute term – “not a single player” – then Goodell revealed the testimony of all of Roethlisberger’s teammates.

At Monday’s media session, there was confusion and rebuttals to Goodell’s comments, with Roethlisberger saying he knows – “for a fact” – some teammates did support him. Some of the Steelers agreed. Of course, at this point, what else could they say?

“I’ve always had Ben’s back,” defensive end Brett Keisel(notes) said. “Ben and I have a very good relationship. I think everyone was behind Ben all along.”

So now someone isn’t telling the truth.

This is why the subject never should’ve been broached. Nothing good could come of it. Simply put, why would the commissioner of the NFL reveal any inside details of what was supposed to be a closed-door investigation?

Why have Roethlisberger now understand that a bunch of his teammates – and he can assuredly figure out who did and didn’t speak to Goodell – were crushing him, potentially behind his back? And why betray those guys, who certainly didn’t think their honest cooperation would one day become a Super Bowl week mini-controversy?

Most of all, why bring up something that’s negative for the Steelers, Roethlisberger or the NFL?

Goodell’s comments carry no positive information or spin. They do nothing for anyone. At best, it’s an annoying line of questioning that the Steelers are capable of compartmentalizing and ignoring. At worst, it’s an unneeded distraction that only regains steam when the rest of the story is printed in SI later in the week.

The NFL symbol is a shield and the commissioner is the person who’s supposed to carry it.

It’s the basis, Goodell says, for the suspensions he’s handed out to Roethlisberger and others. The quarterback was never charged with a crime in Georgia. The police’s detailed report of his boorish behavior was enough to cost him a month of the season anyway, a pretty severe penalty.

[Related: Steelers C Pouncey not ruled out]

Goodell appears to thrive in the role of judge, jury and executioner. He comes across as very comfortable as the purveyor of justice. His predecessors in the commissioner’s office were never so iron-fisted when it came to player conduct. The public has backed his authority, in part because it has little sympathy for things like millionaire quarterbacks and drunken 20-year-old coeds in bodyguard-protected bathrooms of dive bars.

But with the authority that Goodell has seized comes a responsibility to put his employees in the most positive light possible. Everyone else can debate the merits of Ben Roethlisberger this week. Goodell should be pushing the spotlight onto something else. He can’t be preening around and talking it over with reporters.

That’s not how the disciplinary system has been sold to the players.

If he’s going to ask for teammates to participate in investigations, he can’t go defying that trust by passing along what they said. Things are either anonymous or not; you can’t be a little bit pregnant on that.

No, Goodell didn’t name names. He didn’t need to. By saying everyone he spoke with killed Roethlisberger behind his back, Goodell implicated every Steeler with whom he spoke. He ratted them all out.

That isn’t fair to them.

Maybe Roethlisberger cares. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe the Steelers care. Maybe they don’t. Maybe there are hurt feelings and suspicious glances. Maybe not.

We’re unlikely to know for sure because the Steelers are sure to get together in advance of media day and agree to do the one thing Roger Goodell should have been smart enough to do himself.

Not say a meaningful word about it.

Other Super Bowl XLV stories on Yahoo! Sports:
Chico’s Rodgers making it big
Polamalu wins Defensive Player of the Year
Distractions await Packers, Steelers

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jan 31, 2011