Anything more, and he would risk a revolt from those – including, perhaps, the NFL Players Association – who might counter that Mr. Roethlisberger has not been charged with any crime.
Anything less, and he would risk charges of racism from critics who say he has been quick to punish black athletes – such as Michael Vick – even before legal charges were settled.
The decision reflected Commissioner Goodell's continuing desire to cast the National Football League as an organization that gives even its top athletes little leeway for bad behavior, though critics question if it is working.
In the end, the allegations against one of the NFL's top commodities – a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the storied Pittsburgh Steelers – were simply too troubling to marginalize.
A 20-year-old college student accused him of raping her in a Milledgeville, Ga., bar bathroom. Ocmulgee County District Attorney Fred Bright declined to press charges against Roethlisberger, citing an inability to prove the allegations in court, but he laid out a disturbing picture of what his investigation found.
The district attorney said that Roethlisberger was plying the woman with alcohol, though she was underage, before the alleged incident the bathroom. He also said that Roethlisberger did not get special treatment because of his fame.
"Who Mr. Roethlisberger is made no difference," he said.
Roethlisberger is already facing a civil suit from a woman in Nevada who alleges he raped her in a hotel room in 2008.
By the terms of the suspension, Roethlisberger must discontinue practicing with the team and will forfeit about $2.8 million of his salary. He also must undergo counseling. Goodell said he retained the right to lengthen or shorten the suspension based on Roethlisberger's progress.
On the trading block?
In his statement, Goodell stressed that he was not presuming that Roethlisberger was guilty. Instead, he was punishing Roethlisberger because Roethlisberger's behavior had brought the league into disrepute.
“My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor," he wrote. "That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans.”
For third-generation Steelers President Art Rooney II, who runs the operation as a strait-laced family business, the franchise quarterback is apparently no longer an indispensable cog. News reports suggest that the Steelers are looking to trade Roethlisberger if they can get a first-round draft pick in Thursday's draft in return.