PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger zipped passes to his wide receivers, exchanged jokes with teammates and smiled throughout his first workout since the Pittsburgh Steelers missed out on the playoffs.
Business as usual for one of the NFL's most-accomplished quarterbacks? Hardly.
At the same time Roethlisberger was practicing for the first time this spring, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was telling a radio audience Monday that the quarterback violated the NFL's personal conduct policy with his "pattern of behavior" and "bad judgments."
Roethlisberger was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student in a Georgia nightclub last month, although he will not face criminal charges. Roethlisberger does face disciplinary action by the NFL, including a likely suspension, following the release of documents outlining tawdry behavior by the two-time Super Bowl winner.
"The issue here is with respect to a pattern of behavior and bad judgments," Goodell said on Dan Patrick's radio show. "You do not have to be convicted or even charged with a crime to be able to demonstrate that you've violated a personal-conduct policy, and reflect poorly not only on themselves, but all of their teammates, every NFL player in the league, and everyone associated with the NFL. That is what my concern is, and I have expressed that directly to Ben, obviously, and I'll be making a decision as soon as I possibly can."
The Steelers are anticipating a suspension lasting as many as four games that could be announced next week. Goodell also could issue a conditional suspension, much as he did in the Michael Vick case, in which the length of punishment isn't determined for months.
Even if he is suspended, Roethlisberger could practice and take part in preseason games.
The Steelers didn't take action against Roethlisberger themselves to avoid a possible appeal from the players' union. However, several players said the club outlined to them, during a Monday meeting with coach Mike Tomlin, a newly adopted zero-tolerance policy in which unacceptable player conduct will be dealt with harshly and swiftly.
In what apparently was the first case of the rule being implemented, former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes was traded to the Jets for a fifth-round draft pick last week following a series of problems.
"We were told early this morning that either you get in line or you'll get kicked out of line. You're going to be traded or you're not going to be here," right tackle Willie Colon said. "If your conduct is going to play a part in you not being a good football player, they're going to get rid of you."
Roethlisberger also is being sued by a different woman who says he raped her in 2008 at a Lake Tahoe hotel-casino. Roethlisberger denies the accusation and was not charged. The NFL is not considering that case while weighing its punishment.
While his teammates realize they might start the season without the quarterback who led them to four double-digit win seasons the past six seasons, most are supporting him. None publicly rebuked him.
"He's a fun guy, likes to joke around and have a good time. He's easy to get along with. I've never had any problems with him," defensive end Aaron Smith said. "Like a big kid, kind of, hanging out."
Several were confused by the latest accusations, which they said don't mesh with the Roethlisberger they know.
"It's not as if Ben is just some crazy [guy], an enemy or just a person who's so terrible," said wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, who rejoined the Steelers after four seasons with Washington. "We're dealing with it, we have dealt with it and we're moving on. It's better now certainly than during the season."
Randle El also said, "Some of us have had the same situations, they just didn't come to light. We can't point the finger at everyone." He did not elaborate.
Colon, who reportedly accompanied Roethlisberger on the trip to Georgia, declined to discuss any details but defended his friend.
"I know Ben's a standup guy, I know he's learned from his mistakes," Colon said. "I'm going to stand behind him and we're going to move on."
While some Steelers fans are calling for Roethlisberger to be traded, Smith can't imagine why the team wouldn't want to keep him.
"Wouldn't you?" Smith said. "The man's a great quarterback. I mean he comes out there and he wins games. And that's what we're in the business of doing, winning games."