By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010; 12:46 AM
LATROBE, PA. - As Ben Roethlisberger threw passes alongside Byron Leftwich and the Pittsburgh Steelers' other quarterbacks here Thursday morning, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stood nearby on the sideline and talked to Steelers officials.
That scene underscored the unusual nature of the Steelers' practices this summer at Saint Vincent College. Roethlisberger, the franchise's two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, is here readying for the season and working to repair a badly damaged public image. But even as the Steelers attempt to do their part to assist Roethlisberger, they must prepare Leftwich to open the season as their likely starting quarterback while Roethlisberger serves a six-game suspension, imposed by Goodell for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
The terms of the suspension allow Goodell to shorten it to four games, but Goodell said he planned to have a formal meeting with Roethlisberger later this month at the NFL's offices in New York before ruling on that issue.
"I'm very encouraged by what he's doing," Goodell said. "But I'll take the period of time that I have before making the decision, and make it probably right before the regular season."
Goodell and Roethlisberger said they spoke briefly on the field during the morning practice. Goodell said he planned to talk to Roethlisberger again later in the day before leaving to continue his tour of NFL training camps.
"I think he's understanding the seriousness of the issue and working to improve and to make better decisions," Goodell said. "And I think that's a very positive development."
Goodell said Roethlisberger "hasn't just done what he's been told to do" but in recent months has exceeded conditions set by the league, some of which have remained confidential. Roethlisberger said he hoped to demonstrate to Goodell that he has made changes in his life that merit having the suspension reduced.
"We've had our conversations, and I'm sure we'll talk some more," Roethlisberger said. "A lot of it is going to be answering questions and just making sure that he knows I'm ready to get back out there."
Roethlisberger said he and his representatives informed Goodell about some of Roethlisberger's charitable endeavors, which the quarterback said he previously chose not to publicize.
"I wanted to show him that I would do everything that he had asked and then some," Roethlisberger said.
Roethlisberger said he's working out the details of what he plans to do during his suspension, when he will be permitted to have very little contact with the Steelers. In the meantime, Coach Mike Tomlin has had Roethlisberger and Leftwich splitting the practice-field work. The Steelers also have veteran quarterback Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon, a third-year veteran who started a game last season when Roethlisberger was hurt.
Tomlin played down the significance of Thursday's conversations between Roethlisberger and Goodell, calling them informal and saying the commissioner was "just on a tour visiting a bunch of teams in training camp."
Wide receiver Hines Ward said he and other Steelers veterans have been forgiving of Roethlisberger.
"We can't go back and change the past," Ward said. "We only can move forward, and that's what we're doing. I know he's disappointed he's not going to be able to be out there the first four to six games, but there's nothing we can do about it. You can't be angry. You can't be bitter."
Goodell twice declined to directly answer questions by media members Thursday about whether Roethlisberger's suspension potentially could be reduced to fewer than four games. He said only that a ruling on the length of the suspension would be made later. A league spokesman later clarified that the suspension will not be reduced to fewer than four games.
Roethlisberger's suspension was imposed in April, nine days after a prosecutor in Georgia announced that the quarterback would not be charged with a crime after a 20-year-old woman alleged that Roethlisberger had sexually assaulted her at a nightclub in March. Roethlisberger denied committing a crime.
He previously was accused in a civil lawsuit by a Nevada woman of sexually assaulting her in a Lake Tahoe hotel room in 2008. Roethlisberger denied the allegation and was not charged with a crime.
The NFL's personal conduct policy empowers Goodell to punish a player for conduct detrimental to the league even if the player has not been convicted of a crime. Roethlisberger did not appeal the suspension and vowed to comply with all its terms. He underwent a behavioral evaluation by medical experts during the offseason, as ordered by the league under the terms of his suspension.
"He's the commissioner of the league," Roethlisberger said. "He's the boss of the bosses. He has the right to do what he feels right to make his league run the way that he wants it to be run. . . . He's doing what he feels is right."