MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. — Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger may have avoided criminal charges after a college student accused him of sexually assaulting her in Georgia, but he must meet with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and could face punishment from the league.
And Roethlisberger said he knows he'll have to work to regain the trust of teammates and fans.
Ocmulgee Circuit District Attorney Fred Bright said Monday that after exhaustive interviews and inconclusive medical exams, the 20-year-old student's accusations could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Bright also revealed the accuser no longer wanted him to prosecute.
Bright said he continued to investigate the case, but ultimately decided against moving forward partly because he was never able to find out what happened behind the bathroom door at the Capital City club in Milledgeville.
"Here, the overall circumstances do not lead to a viable prosecution. If they did, I would be pursuing it vigorously," Bright said. "We do not prosecute morals. We prosecute crimes."
In his first public remarks since the accusations, Roethlisberger read a 74-second statement Monday at a podium in the Steelers' locker room.
"The prosecutor's decision not to bring charges, I know without a doubt, is the right conclusion," said Roethlisberger, who was wearing a red sports shirt and light-colored slacks. "I don't intend to discuss any details related to the events of Georgia. I'm happy to put this behind me and move forward."
Roethlisberger also did not discuss his upcoming meeting with Goodell or any possible punishment that might come from the league or the team for violating the players' conduct code.
"I am excited to get back to work with my teammates, and I'm more determined than ever to have a great season," he said.
The encounter took place after a night of bar-hopping in Milledgeville, a quaint central Georgia college town about 30 miles from where the two-time Super Bowl winner owns a lake home. Bright detailed the night during a lengthy news conference Monday.
Roethlisberger, who was out drinking with friends to celebrate his 28th birthday, bumped into the student and her sorority sisters throughout the night. They linked up at Capital City, where he invited them to a VIP section and bought them a round of shots.
As the night wore on, the student walked down a dingy hallway to a small bathroom, and Roethlisberger soon followed. What happened next remained unclear.
The student told police she had been sexually assaulted, but medical results were less clear. A doctor who examined her at a nearby emergency room found a cut, bruises and vaginal bleeding but could not say if she was raped. And while some DNA was found, there was not enough to determine whom it belonged to, Bright said.
Roethlisberger is being sued by a different woman who says he raped her in 2008 at a Lake Tahoe hotel and casino, which he denies. Roethlisberger was not criminally charged in that case and has claimed counter-damages in the lawsuit.
In Milledgeville, state and local police canvassed the town and began interviewing witnesses. Roethlisberger hired Ed Garland, who has represented a long list of high-profile defendants. The accuser's family also hired lawyers, who eventually sent a letter to Bright saying the woman did not want a trial because it would be "a very intrusive personal experience."
Georgia laws set a relatively high bar for proving sexual assault, requiring proof that force was used and that the victim did not consent, said J. Tom Morgan, a former DeKalb County district attorney. That can be particularly difficult if both parties were drinking alcohol, he said.
As Pittsburgh's first-round draft pick out of Miami of Ohio in 2004, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to Super Bowl victories in 2006 and 2009. He frequently has donated time and money to charities.
But off-field problems have come along with his championships and $102 million contract. In 2006, he defied his coach's orders and rode his motorcycle without a helmet — and wound up with a concussion, broken jaw and other injuries after a wreck.
And while Roethlisberger has a reputation for patiently signing autographs and posing for pictures out in public, he also is known for occasionally inelegant behavior in Pittsburgh. Early in his career, he was photographed — obviously after drinking — wearing a T-shirt reading "Drink Like a Champion."
"I'm truly sorry for the disappointment and negative attention I brought to my family, my teammates, coaches, the Rooneys and the NFL," Roethlisberger said. "I understand that the opportunities I have been blessed with are a privilege, and much is expected of me as the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I absolutely want to be the leader this team deserves, valued in the community and a role model to kids. I have much work to do to earn this trust."
Team president Art Rooney II, known to be frustrated and exasperated with Roethlisberger's lack of maturity and judgment, agreed that the quarterback must win back the respect and trust of his teammates and his city.
"During the past few weeks, I have met with Ben on a number of occasions, not only to discuss this incident, but also to discuss his commitment to making sure this never happens again," Rooney said in a statement.
In Pittsburgh, the reaction among fans was mixed. Some said they feared it was only a matter of time before Roethlisberger was in trouble again.
"I've seen him around a couple times and he's always got the entourage, and the aura around him and it's annoying," said Kevin Brown, a 27-year-old who watched the news conference at an upscale restaurant a stone's throw from Heinz Field. "I've seen the way he's acted."
Jim Gallagher, 54, of Butler, north of Pittsburgh, is a Steelers fan and was critical of the franchise quarterback.
"I'm disappointed in his actions. Whether he did anything that was against the law, you'll never know," Gallagher said. "I think he needs to realize he's representing the city and the Rooney family and letting everybody down by his actions. Morally, I think he's wrong."