When the news broke that Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth would receive only a 30-day prison sentence after pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter on Tuesday, the overwhelming negative response was predictable, if not completely justified.
After all, Stallworth was facing up to 15 years in prison before receiving the lighter sentence—along with two years of house arrest, eight years on probation, and a lifetime driver’s license suspension.
Immediately following the sentencing, the attention shifted to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell who has earned a reputation for cracking down on players running afoul of the law. His most notable action was a suspension of former Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones for the entire 2007 season after a plethora of incidents, most notably a Las Vegas strip club altercation that left a bouncer paralyzed.
Not surprisingly, Goodell acted quickly Thursday, suspending Stallworth indefinitely without pay. Speculation persists over how long the suspension will last, but the commissioner has precedent from which to work.
His predecessor Paul Tagliabue suspended St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little for eight games of the 1999 season after Little pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter after hitting and killing a woman while driving drunk in 1998. Tagliabue was widely criticized for being too lenient—as he was for other disciplinary actions taken during his tenure.
Goodell has worked to improve the perception of how the league disciplines players with legal issues, but the reasons have little to do with the shortcomings of our legal system as many want it to be.
Any disciplinary action imposed by Goodell has nothing to do with a moral obligation to levy a suitable punishment the legal system failed to provide; it’s motivated by money and protecting the image and reputation of a multibillion-dollar business.
In Stallworth’s defense, he acted with accountability after making the horrible choice to get behind the wheel while under the influence. A first-time offender, Stallworth remained on the scene, dialed 911, and cooperated with authorities during the investigation.
Still, the disturbing idea of Stallworth having the wherewithal to flash his lights but failing to slow down or stop for a pedestrian crossing the street illegally is too much to overlook or easily forgive. The thought of a 59-year-old father and husband losing his life—even if he was jaywalking—cannot be shaken. And it’s an act too damning for Goodell and the NFL to take lightly, regardless of Stallworth’s previously clean record and the precedent of the Little case.
Stallworth’s conviction should warrant a suspension for the entire 2009 season—if not for the duration of his two-year house arrest. The despicable act is just another black mark for a league that has dealt with several high-profile incidents over the last few years.
In addition to Stallworth, Goodell faces difficult decisions regarding the soon-to-be-released Michael Vick and the delayed litigation of former New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress.
While players the caliber of Vick and Burress add star power to the league, the commissioner must look at the negative effects of allowing convicted players to compete when the league’s reputation and millions of dollars in revenue are at stake.
Discussions will continue over when—and if—Vick will be allowed to play in the NFL again, but Goodell will almost surely take additional disciplinary action against the 29-year-old former Atlanta Falcons quarterback. If he immediately welcomes Vick back into the league with open arms, he’ll come under fire from organizations such as PETA and other animal rights supporters.
And the dilemma of what to do with Burress may be even cloudier considering he has not been convicted in a court of law. Goodell has avoided taken disciplinary action against individuals before the legal process plays out, but the straightforward nature of Burress’ case—he concealed a weapon and accidentally shot himself in the leg— makes it difficult to allow the former Giants receiver to simply play this season while waiting for his day in court, likely in 2010.
Given the backlash of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg immediately following the November incident, it would be difficult to envision Goodell standing by and allowing Burress to play without any action being taken.
Ultimately, Goodell is not really concerned with taking a moral stand or superseding the perceived missteps of the legal system; he simply wants to protect the image of his league. It’s a wise strategy, and one can simply look at Major League Baseball as the perfect example of how weak leadership can lead to grave problems, as it has with performance enchancing drugs.
While we’ll wait to see what actions are taken against Vick and Burress, Goodell’s first step against Stallworth was swift and severe. It sends a strong message to the rest of the league’s players, and it’s in the best interest of the National Football League.