Goodell's slippery Roethlisberger slope

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said this week at the NFL owners meeting in Orlando, Fla., that he'll meet with Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is currently under investigation for sexual assault, at the "appropriate time."

What's he waiting for? Nightly updates from Nancy Grace's show?

Certainly, I'm not making light of Roethlisberger's situation or the complicated position that Goodell finds himself in now that the quarterback for one of the NFL's most storied franchises is facing a sexual assault accusation for the second time in less than a year.

Goodell's first public comments about Roethlisberger indicate the NFL is watching the developments in the case closely. But the commissioner's words weren't as strong as they need to be. Instead of bringing the Roethlisberger controversy down to a simmer, it remains at a boil.

In truth, Goodell should already have met with Roethlisberger, even though the investigation into whether Roethlisberger should be charged with sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman in a Milledgeville, Ga., bar remains ongoing. And once he and Big Ben are in a room alone together, Goodell should absolutely castigate the two-time Super Bowl winner for bringing such bad publicity to his lucrative league.

I'm aware Roethlisberger hasn't been charged with any crime and -- everyone say it with me -- is innocent until proven guilty. He has the right to defend himself against his accusers. We have no idea what Georgia investigators will uncover, or what will become of the civil suit filed against him last summer by a Lake Tahoe woman who accused him of raping her in 2008.

In a perfect world, there would be no pressure for the commissioner to act until Roethlisberger's situation plays out completely. But in the real world, perception is what matters.

And surely the commissioner has noticed that Roethlisberger's case is becoming a racial litmus test. Fair or not, the perception is that Goodell has been eager to punish black athletes regardless of the status of their criminal investigations; and now that a white superstar quarterback is under police investigation, a lot of people -- especially African-Americans -- are noting how patiently Goodell is behaving.

Certainly there were factors with Adam "Pacman" Jones and Michael Vick -- the most high-profile measuring sticks of how the NFL can enforce its code of conduct -- that prompted the commissioner to dole out punishments before they were convicted in a court of law. For openers, Jones had a long history of previous arrests and other run-ins and Vick had already been indicted in his dogfighting case; Roethlisberger hasn't been charged yet. But the only factor that matters to those African-Americans keeping close tabs on the Roethlisberger case is this: The commissioner didn't wait to meet with Jones and Vick when they had criminal investigations hanging over their heads. Every time a prominent black athlete is involved in a legal situation, it seems as if the long, lawful arm of Goodell is ready to react.

The commissioner announced Jones' season-long suspension in 2007 less than two months after he was allegedly involved in an altercation and shooting outside of a Las Vegas strip club -- which was two months before Jones was officially charged by Vegas police and a week after Goodell brought Jones into his office for one of his infamous sit-downs. Jones accepted a plea deal for the Vegas incident in November 2007, which resulted in a suspended one-year prison sentence, probation and community service.

The commissioner wasn't wrong for punishing Jones before he had his day in court. Given Jones' extensive brushes with the law and the seriousness of the Las Vegas incident, Jones' one-year suspension was entirely appropriate. There was little doubt his reckless behavior was undermining the league's credibility and its reputation.

Goodell, though, officially set a precedent with Jones. For the commissioner, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.

When Goodell suspended Jones, he wrote a letter to the troubled player that stated: "Your conduct has brought embarrassment and ridicule upon yourself, your club, and the NFL, and has damaged the reputation of players throughout the league. You have put in jeopardy an otherwise promising NFL career, and have risked both your own safety and the safety of others through your off-field actions. In each of these respects, you have engaged in conduct detrimental to the NFL and failed to live up to the standards expected of NFL players. Taken as a whole, this conduct warrants significant sanction."

Roethlisberger might not have the same track record as Jones, but being accused of sexual assault twice in less than a year is an embarrassment not only to the Steelers, but to the entire NFL. No matter what happens with the criminal investigation or the civil case, these accusations will follow Roethlisberger forever and be used to judge the character of other NFL players.

In the past, Goodell has made it clear that protecting the NFL's brand is his foremost concern. When Goodell barred Vick from training camp while dogfighting charges were pending against him, he wrote this to Vick: "While it is for the criminal justice system to determine your guilt or innocence, it is my responsibility as commissioner of the National Football League to determine whether your conduct, even if not criminal, nonetheless violated league policies, including the Personal Conduct Policy."

Given that stern position, Goodell should not only already have met with Roethlisberger, but he should already have come to the conclusion that no matter how this investigation turns out, Roethlisberger should be suspended.

When Goodell sat Jones down for a year, he wanted to send a message that irresponsible behavior could cost an NFL player his livelihood. If Goodell doesn't schedule a meeting with Roethlisberger immediately, it feeds the perception that white NFL stars under criminal investigation are treated differently and will receive more benefit of the doubt than their black counterparts.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.