James Burns: Stallworth slap on wrist a travesty

June 19, 2009 

Burns, James

James Burns, sports editor

Roger Goodell has a curious tendency of having PR grenades land and explode in his lap.

Another went BOOM! on Tuesday in a Miami courtroom, where Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte' Stallworth was convicted of felony DUI manslaughter.

In March, the Northern California native left a Miami nightclub, clearly impaired, and jumped behind the wheel of his Bentley with the reaction time of a tortoise.

Stallworth admitted to seeing Mario Reyes, a crane operator trying to catch a morning bus, but couldn't stop fast enough to save his life.

Mario wasn't using a crosswalk and for his small sin, paid the ultimate price.

With puppy dog eyes, a plea deal and all the right words, Stallworth slipped a 15-year sentence like it were a linebacker trying to cover him 1-on-1.

Instead, Stallworth will get the tamest of penalties: 30 days in the clink, two years of house arrest and eight years of probation.

A slap on the wrist, if you ask me.

The hope, by the state, the judge and the Reyes family, is that Stallworth will be more valuable carrying the shame and guilt in the public eye, rather than toiling away behind bars.

He's expected to perform community service, support DUI awareness groups and speak at elementary schools, high schools and Boys and Girls Clubs.

Mario Reyes' life, they say, will be Stallworth's scarlet letter.

"I will continue to bear this burden the rest of my life," Stallworth said. "I can and will honor his memory by dedicating my time, resources and voice to educate the community about the dangers of drunk driving."

The penalties levied by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy can and should be disputed in public and private circles.

You should be mad.

And confused.

You should pound your fist, denouncing drunk drivers, and say silent prayers for the Reyes family and those affected by DUIs.

Did Stallworth get off easy? Yes.

If the roles had been reversed, and Reyes mowed down Stallworth, would he have been treated differently?

You betcha.

Stallworth gets 30 days for killing a husband and a father, but Michael Vick gets 23 months for killing dogs? How does that make any sense?

It doesn't.

Thirty days looks like another free pass orchestrated by a celebrity and his/her lawyers. Thirty days sounds like an extended vacation.

These are fair questions, all of 'em -- questions Stallworth may have to answer for as long as the spotlight burns above him.

That's his penance.

Goodell's is different. He's got to worry about another PR grenade.

And I think now we'll find out how much backbone the NFL commissioner really has.

To this point, Goodell has been vigilant in his efforts to blush-over the league's black eyes and bruises.

Kudos to him.

He suspended Adam "Pacman" Jones and Tank Johnson, banished Michael Vick and left habitual offender Brandon Marshall scared straight.

But for the first time under his watch, he's dealing with the loss of human life.

Death.

Manslaughter.

The court system may have shown Stallworth some leniency, but Goodell...

Well, we don't yet know the full extent of Goodell's actions.

On Thursday, the NFL announced it had suspended the deviant wide receiver indefinitely.

Which sounds well and good, until you realize that Goodell slapped Jones, a former Cowboys cornerback, with the same punishment last year -- and he missed all of six games.

Think about that. Six games.

When someone loses their life, when a man like Mario Reyes, just 59, is erased inexcusably, you get the feeling that six football games is hardly a fair trade. Don't you?

My call: Goodell should throw the book at Stallworth. It's not too late. The beauty of a word like "indefinitely" is that it can mean whatever you want. Six games. Six years. Eight weeks. Eight months.

In this case, Goodell should strike with a heavy, heavy hand, banning Stallworth for the duration of his arrest (two years) and a portion of his probationary period. I'm thinking four, maybe five years. At least.

Long enough that his case resonates through the league, and other pro circuits, for years to come. Like The Mitchell Report.

Long enough that he, not Vick, becomes the example NFL officials use at rookie symposiums and combines.

And long enough for the league to repair its image, cleaning its cupboards of the creepy crawlies, rats and roaches.

That could take years, given the number of hits the NFL has taken in the last few years.

Maybe then, though, Stallworth can resume his football career.

Maybe then, Goodell won't have to worry if he's employed a PR grenade.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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