Thursday, July 2, 2009

Justice, NFL Style


When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued his official mountaintop farewell after the final mini-camp, OTA, and in the case of the Raiders, DTA (Disorganized Team Activity) had ended, he sounded more like a high school principal than the leader of professional sports’ most lucrative concern. As the kids ran out of team complexes like students’ heading into summer break, they could hear the voice booming from loudspeakers across the country, warning them about the evils of drunk driving.

The final sentence of the proclamation was the most telling: “Let’s make sure that the 2009 season does not bring more tragedy or embarrassment to ourselves and our employees.” Goodell even went so far as to mention Donte Stallworth, the Cleveland receiver who is serving 30 days in stir for hitting and killing a man while driving drunk – and thanks to new information made known yesterday – high. Goodell has suspended Stallworth “indefinitely” and has promised to make known the final disposition of that nebulous sentence soon.

As Goodell weighs the merits of relieving Stallworth of his livelihood for a quarter, half or full season, a debate has sprouted about whether Goodell has the right to impose a substantial penalty at all. There is no doubt that Stallworth should have a chance to play in the NFL again, just as Michael Vick deserves another shot, but some league discipline must be imposed, and it must have teeth.

Some say Goodell must make up for the court’s relative leniency. Although there was no intent to kill the man who walked in front of Stallworth’s car early one morning, he still took another life, and 30 days seems like a pretty small price to pay for that. Despite showing what appears to be true remorse and settling with the man’s family for what is no doubt a hefty amount, Stallworth received a pretty light penalty. (IMPORTANT CODICIL: Anyone who has ever seen the HBO classic “Oz” knows that even five minutes in the joint can lead to any number of nightmares, particularly if Schillinger gets a hold of you, so 30 days can seem like forever, or the length of an WNBA game.)

Goodell’s job is not to correct the court’s work. His sole responsibility is the health and economic welfare of the (insert dramatic pause) National Football League. Because of that role, he must consider Stallworth’s crime within the framework of how his return to action will affect the league and its reputation. Back in ’98, Leonard Little killed a woman while driving drunk and spent 90 days behind bars. Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue slapped Little with an eight-game suspension, but the defensive end returned and eventually became a Pro Bowler. Though MADD picketed Little’s first game back with the Rams after the suspension, there was no furor surrounding his return and only a small percentage of today’s fans would be able to recall the crime.

Now comes Stallworth. While he sits in jail, Goodell must judge the damage the wide receiver has done to the league, not to mention the ramifications of a player’s driving drunk and high, a daily double of NFL conduct violations. Worse than breaking his employer’s rules, Stallworth perpetuated the myth of athletes’ behaving badly. Despite being but a minute portion of the overall NFL personnel universe, people like Stallworth become the image of the highly-paid performers. No amount of charitable work can erase it. Donovan McNabb could eradicate swine flu from the landscape, and he wouldn’t be able to overcome the damage Stallworth has done to players’ or the league’s reputations.

That’s where Goodell comes in. His job as commissioner is to propagate the NFL and make sure that its financial health persists and improves. To do that, he must deal swiftly and sternly with those who are threats to that well being. Stallworth’s crime has hurt Goodell’s league and its business. If he does not come down hard on Stallworth, particularly in an economic climate where people are struggling to pay high ticket prices and to make sure their kids have the GI Joes with the Kung-fu grip, he runs the risk of giving back some of the goodwill and market share the league has accumulated during the past several decades.

Yes, Goodell has to pounce, on both Vick and Stallworth. The question is whether they deserve the same suspensions, and the answer is no. Although Vick did more time for his dog-fighting crimes, there’s no way the killing of any animal – no matter what the quantity – trumps the taking of a human life. PETA can scream from the treetops (just be careful not to disturb the slender-billed grackle) all it wants on that one, but it’s wrong. Vick deserves a half-year away from the NFL, and Stallworth needs to be seated for a full season. That way, he’ll get the opportunity to take care of his community service obligations and remain clear of the spotlight, and the league can show that it takes this kind of behavior very seriously. By giving Stallworth a substantial penalty, Goodell will be looking out for his league by protecting its image. He’ll also be sending a distinct message to other players that will be stronger than any “behave yourselves” letter he could write.

And, come September, when everybody returns to class, they’ll know the principal isn’t going to back down.

Now, about that summer reading.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: A tip of the helmet to SI’s Chris Ballard for his back-page story in the magazine this week. Click on the link and read on. If you don’t choke up, call Keith Richards’ doctor, because you need a transfusion. Some might consider it sacrilegious to root against an American in anything, but you have to cheer for Andy Murray to become the first British man to win at Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936. Maybe he’ll get a shoe named for him if he does triumph…The price tag for a courtside seat at the renovated Pauley Pavilion in ’12-13? Try a one-time 500 large serving of cheddar, followed by annual “contributions” of $17,000/seat – plus the tickets’ cost. Yeah, college sports are a pure, amateur pursuit. Pay the damn players already…Tennessee has received a commitment from a 13-year old grid star whose brother and father played for the Vols. No word on whether coach Lane Kiffin told the kid that if he went to South Carolina, he’d never become any good on Rock Band…Okay, so the U.S. soccer team coughs up a 2-0 lead against Brazil in the Confederations Final, and all of a sudden the red-white-and-blew-it is a world power. Calm down, everybody. Let’s see how the Yanks do Aug. 12 in the World Cup qualifier in Mexico while dodging bags of human excrement…A judge dismissed attempts by Ro(H)g(H)er Clemens to revive some of his defamation claims against former trainer Brian McNamee. Awwww. Now McNamee gets a chance to sue Clemens. Ain’t justice great?

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Those 1-2-3-4-5-Sixers did the right thing by drafting Jrue Holiday last Thursday. NBA personnel sources tell El Hombre that Holiday will be a first-rate point man in a couple years, thanks to his size, athletic ability, competitiveness and defensive skills. He played out of position at UCLA last year and still had more assists per minute played and per possession than did Darren Collison, who dominated the ball. While the Sixers wait for Holiday, they remain an imperfect team, even if they re-sign free agent PG Richard Pryor. They have no real center, no two guard and their two best young players – Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young – play the same position. The Sixers have a bunch of ugly contracts and at a time when teams are clearing space for 2010 free agency, their salary cap is clogged worse than the commode at an offensive linemen’s convention. Don’t expect big things next season. Or the one after that.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Manny Ramirez returns to the lineup this weekend after serving his 50-day sentence for taking fertility drugs to spark testosterone growth after steroid use. (Allegedly.) Expect an outpouring of love from Dodgers’ Stepfords and a celebration of the cheater’s talents by the league’s propaganda partners. Let’s hope Hall of Fame voters commemorate the occasion by promising never to vote for the bum and to remind people as needed about his crimes against baseball. It will be easy to view the juiced-up slugger as a sympathetic figure, given the welcome he’ll receive, but don’t ever remove him from the list of drug abusers and don’t give in to the temptation to say it was just “Manny being Manny.” Let the pajama-wearing, traveling-secretary-bullying lab creation get into Cooperstown the same way the rest of us do – with a ticket.


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