Over two decades ago, I had a friend who was accused of sexual abuse against a minor.  The minor had been arrested on vandalism charges, and said that his downward spiral stemmed from the alleged sexual abuse he suffered years before.  The accused saw his life turned upside down, and the experience nearly ruined him.  He retained a lawyer, waited what seemed an agonizing three weeks, before the minor finally admitted that he had completely fabricated the charges.

But the stigma remained.

What I remember most was something my friend said while this was all going on, “You can’t protect yourself against a lie.”

You can’t protect yourself against a lie.

It’s a tough lesson.  This friend reflected that if you are alone with someone for five minutes, that person can say anything later on.

It’s a lesson in how utterly vulnerable we all are.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stands accused in a civil suit of sexually assaulting a 31-year-old Canadian national casino worker in Nevada on July 11, 2008.

Mr. Roethlisberger is vulnerable.  Regardless of what happened, his image is sullied for a while.  Is Roethlisberger the victim of an ugly lie?  Or did something else happen?  Is it possible the allegation is true?

The accuser has a weakened case.  There has been no criminal complaint.  There has been no police investigation.  However, the accuser contacted the sheriff’s department over unrelated instances in the past.

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Her attorney acknowledges that his client did not seek out the police. Her lawsuit said she was “afraid of the consequences of reporting it to police authorities since it was obvious to her that Harrah’s and its personnel … would side with and support Roethlisberger. …”

Records in Douglas County, Nev., show the woman after other incidents had contacted the sheriff’s department — this January, March 2008 and September 2005 — to report harassment, a burglary at her home and annoying phone calls, respectively.

The department has said it will not launch an investigation into the sexual assault allegation unless the woman files a complaint.

Roethlisberger made a statement Thursday:

With pursed lips and a somber expression, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger denied to the world yesterday the accusations of a Nevada casino worker who claims in a lawsuit that he sexually assaulted her last summer.

“The allegations against me are reckless and false,” Mr. Roethlisberger, 27, told reporters at the Steelers UPMC training facility on the South Side, speaking publicly about the case for the first time.

Her attorney, Calvin R.X. Dunlap, confirmed yesterday that Mr. Roethlisberger was served with the suit while he was attending this year’s golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, which ran from July 14 to this past Sunday.

“Her false and vicious allegations are an attack on my family and on me. I would never, ever force myself on a woman. I’m going to fight to protect my family and my reputation,” Mr. Roethlisberger continued.

Wearing a brown, pinstripe suit with a pocket square, dress shirt open at the neck and no tie, the two-time Super Bowl winner seemed a bit haggard, sporting stubble and tousled hair.

Filing a civil suit before making a criminal complaint is suspicious, especially when the accuser had gone to the police before.

Regardless of where this goes and what actually happened in Nevada, this will be a life-changing event for Ben Roethlisberger.  Without a criminal complaint, is she simply looking for a settlement?  Who knows.  The diabolical thing about civil suits is that they sometimes do end in a settlement of some sort, and that in itself raises questions.  The wonderful conundrum, however, is that it’s sometimes much cheaper to settle a civil suit than to endure lengthy litigation, especially given that the standard of proof is less in a civil matter.

Civil suits can also be thrown out, dismissed with prejudice.

The Steeler organization has no tolerance for problem players.  The Rooney family has a long-standing reputation for only accepting people of character on the team and in the organization.  Arthur J. Rooney saw the Steelers as an extension of his family, and that feeling persists today.  That doesn’t mean that everyone on the team is an angel, or always has been.  But expectations are high, and players come to believe the expectations are worth living up to, on and off the field.

So I don’t take lightly the fact that the organization stands behind Roethlisberger, literally as well as figuratively:

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin stood behind Mr. Roethlisberger’s right shoulder, looking on stoically on as his quarterback spoke. Also attending the news conference were Kevin Colbert, the Steelers director of football operations; the quarterback’s agent, Ryan Tollner; and his lawyer, William David Cornwell Sr.

Is there more to the story?  No doubt.  But I don’t see this as a case of men supporting other men at all costs.  Not this team.  That’s the insidious thing about this civil allegation.  It raises those doubts.  And it shouldn’t.

At this point, all we can do is watch and hope that Ben is still the man he has demonstrated himself to be — over a long period of time.