NEW YORK — The NFL cracked down on one of its stars Wednesday, suspending Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for not just a few games but the first six of the season, even though he avoided sexual assault charges in Georgia.
The two-time Super Bowl winner was banned without pay for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy and was ordered to undergo a "comprehensive behavioral evaluation by professionals."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handed down the punishment a week after prosecutors decided not to charge Roethlisberger in a case involving a 20-year-old college student who accused him of sexually assaulting her in a Milledgeville, Ga., nightclub last month.
"I recognize that the allegations in Georgia were disputed and that they did not result in criminal charges being filed against you," Goodell said in his letter to the six-year veteran.
"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. That said, you are held to a higher standard as a n 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 expectatio ns of our fans."
Goodell said team offseason activities were off limits to the quarterback until he completes the evaluation and is cleared by the league to rejoin the Steelers.
"Your conduct raises sufficient concerns that I believe effective intervention now is the best step for your personal and professional welfare," Goodell wrote.
Trade rumors immediately swirled, and while the Steelers declined to address the speculation, they were privately weighing whether they should consider dealing their franchise quarterback for a Top 10 draft pick if one were offered.
Sitting out all six games would cost Roethlisberger an estimated $2.8 million, though the penalty could be shortened to four games for good behavior.
Roethlisberger is the first player suspended by Goodell under the conduct policy who hasn't been arrested or charged with a crime.
Roethlisberger also is being sued by a woman who accused him of raping her at a Lake Tahoe hotel-casino in 2008. He denied the allegation and wasn't charged.
"In your six years in the NFL, you have first thrilled and now disappointed a great many people," Goodell wrote. "I urge you to take full advantage of this opportunity to get your life and c areer back on track."
Goodell said the league's conduct policy gave him the right to impose discipline regardless of whether Roethlisberger broke the law.
Before acting, Goodell said he interviewed Roethlisberger on April 13 and talked to current and former players and the players' union. He also reviewed information from the Georgia Bureau of In vestigation and Milledgeville police and talked privately with Georgia district attorney Fred Bright. In addition, Goodell said he listened to recommendations from the quarterback's representatives , and took into account information learned by the NFL office regarding the alleged assault.
The Steelers said Roethlisberger was unavailable for comment. His agent, Ryan Tollner, said he planned to respond later.
In a statement to police, the college student said Roethlisberger encouraged her, and her friends, to take numerous shots of alcohol. Then one of his bodyguards escorted her into a hallway at the Capital City nightclub in Milledgeville, Ga., sat her on a stool and left. She said Roethlisberger walked down the hallway and exposed himself.
"I told him it wasn't OK, no, we don't need to do this and I proceeded to get up and try to leave," she said. "I went to the first door I saw, which happened to be a bathroom."
According to her statement, Roethlisberger then followed her into the bathroom and shut the door.
"I still said no, this is not OK, and he then had sex with me," she wrote.
Two of her friends said they saw a bodyguard lead her into the hallway and then saw Roethlisberger follow. They said they couldn't see their friend but knew she was drunk and were worried about her.
The statements were among hundreds of pages of the case file made public last week by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania state trooper Ed Joyner can no longer work as a personal assistant to Roethlisberger because he was present when the alleged assault took place.
Pennsylvania State Police said Wednesday that Joyner's outside work exceeded the scope of what was permitted. They also said "he is alleged to have demeaned the image" of the state police.
Steelers president Art Rooney II was on the phone call with Goodell to inform Roethlisberger of the suspension. Previously, Rooney said the team was prepared to discipline Roethlisberger had Goodell not acted.
"When the commissioner acts under the league conduct policy, it is the commissioner's decision," Rooney said. "Clearly in this case we had an opportunity to have input in a number of convers ations about what was going to happen. We certainly were able to coordinate on what was the final outcome."
Goodell has aggressively dealt with players who violated the personal conduct policy throughout his 3 1/2 years as commissioner. He banned the Titans' Adam "Pacman" Jones for one year, and suspe nded Chicago's Tank Johnson and Cincinnati's Chris Henry eight games each in 2007. Henry died last year of a head injury after falling off the back of a truck.
Last year, Michael Vick was suspended for six games, later shortened to two games, after serving 18 months in jail for his role in a dogfighting ring.
In all, 16 players have been suspended under the conduct policy by Goodell.