Stallworth's situation can offer league path to help educate players

To be frank -- and attorney David Cornwell is consistently that -- he does not know how Donte' Stallworth is managing. Cornwell will know more when he visits his client in a Miami jail on Wednesday.

"I guess I have to say that Donte' is fine," Cornwell said. "None of this is a surprise to him. He was intimately involved in his defense. But I don't know how he really is. I never killed anyone."

Stallworth received a 30-day jail sentence for DUI manslaughter after his car struck and killed Mario Reyes, 59, on March 14 in Miami. Among other penalties after his mid-July release, the Cleveland Browns receiver will be under two years house arrest and eight years probation. He reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the Reyes family, who told prosecutors they wanted to avoid all trials. Prosecutors said that immediately following the tragedy and beyond, Stallworth was cooperative.

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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has suspended Stallworth indefinitely without pay. Further action depends on a meeting between the two after Stallworth's release.

Public outcry that Stallworth was treated too favorably is bold.

"Some of the emotional outburst from the public would have us believe that our legal system on so many levels is inept and was duped," Cornwell said. "How about if it was the right result? We know there is another piece to this and that is the commissioner's decision. The commissioner's early decision was strongly worded. We have to deal with it.

"But there were other circumstances that deal with the 30-day sentence. Had the case gone to court it would have been about cause. No question, Donte' was impaired. No question, Mr. Reyes is dead. But the question of accountability? Did Donte' cause his death? The answer is no. But he is willing to take responsibility to a certain point. The case is more complicated because he was impaired. But the evidence shows it was not all Donte's fault."

The Miami Herald reported on June 16 that the crash was caught on surveillance video. Witnesses told police that Reyes, out of the crosswalk, ran across a multiple-lane road that is more like a highway than a street.

None of this totally absolves Stallworth. But it helps explain the family's position and the prosecutor decisions.

"Donte' called me from the back of the police car," Cornwell said. "From the start, this is someone who is not a bad person who did a bad thing. He and his family insisted going forward we would do things the right way. We made contact with the commissioner and with the Browns and provided information they asked for and some they did not. Solely based on the facts of this case, Donte' should be fined and suspended a minimum number of games. But if he is going to be made an example by the NFL and it is much longer, Roger (Goodell) and the league have a problem.

"When I first walked into Donte's home, there was a 60-foot TV. He had a screensaver on it. Family pictures, movie shots, historical figures who blew you away. We walked into the kitchen to eat and on the top of several books on the counter was one titled 'The Craft of Intelligence.' I told him, 'You realize you are just a football player.' We both realized what that moment meant.

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"This is not just about the black NFL player; white NFL players are disciplined, too. But the guys I feel for are like Donte' who are men who play football, not people who should be identified solely by what they do and what they earn. And, particularly, all black NFL players do not fit one description; that is villainously wrong. We already fought that fight in America. Defining people by a common character and setting policy by that is bad. Many of these players are still learning how they fit in this quilt."

The bigger picture

Cornwell is touching upon something that has been what I have long believed is a cornerstone of the NFL's continued success: Investing in the person as much as in the player.

As the league gathers for its annual rookie symposium starting June 28 in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., it is programs like this one that can make a difference in some young players' lives and careers. They learn through skits and lectures and workshops a variety of skills and reminders of the traps that can engulf them from social settings to financial dealings and beyond.

I think we have to account for some elements among the entire body of NFL players who no matter how much lecturing or counsel given, they simply cannot or will not do things correctly or professionally. That there is a cache whose careers and lives will fizzle from an unwillingness and inability to accept change and growth.

Player accountability is paramount.

But a multi-faceted approach to dealing with player conduct must continue to evolve in the NFL.

"You have to have at these seminars and at these club sites people who can speak to players and not someone who speaks Greek to those who speak English," Cornwell said. "The NFL cannot become a product management company. It is not as simple as a role of tissue on a belt that comes out oval and a manager grabs that role and tosses it aside. People are not waste. And that can happen if you think of football players as just that instead of as men, as humans, as valuable.

"We have the expertise in the league to fix football problems; it is a laboratory every Sunday determined by wins and losses and the next week you fix the strategic problems. The same mentality must be applied to these player issues. I know it is a dynamic that defies a singular description. It's complicated. I know it's hard. But hard has never been a decisive factor for the National Football League. It wasn't for TV rights. It wasn't for fixing strikes. It wasn't for expanding to 32 teams. It wasn't for the development of international games. It wasn't for building a multi-billion dollar industry.

  -- Donte' Stallworth's attorney David Cornwell on dealing with player conduct. 

"If you know so much about a guy as football player, do you know him as a person? If you know he can play, do you know how he copes? We have to coach them through social issues. We have to do more about it. Don't have programs, have effective programs. Do it differently and keep doing it over until you find things that work. Coach them so they can play, but coach them so they can live."

I agree with Cornwell that pop culture in the last 20 years has influenced the nation and a generation with a notion that glorifies lawlessness and violent behavior. That many young men have grown up with that notion and that some of them are in the NFL. It is a fight to re-educate. And it requires more than discipline or fines.

I believe the league is more aware of these factors than it has been at any time. It is more poised to do more about it now than ever before. An effective conduct policy is only one prong.

"Because every team," said Cornwell, "is one DUI or bar room brawl away from having a character issue or being labeled a franchise that has a problem. So, we should run from labels or generalizations when we hear them.

"Agents can play a role. They need to embrace the challenge of helping their clients succeed as men instead of 'dumbing' them down like they sometimes try to do. Colleges can do more and continue to understand that some players' period of decay begins there. Teammates have to hold their peers accountable for more than correctly running a 7-yard out."

And NFL players must embrace accountability.

He has no problem relishing in his status when it comes to special entry at an event or whisking through security to his team's private airport tarmac. He has no problem accepting the financial reward of an NFL contract. We help create their "separate society." We sometimes want them banished for good when they fail.

Little wonder these players need incessant guidance as much as discipline to navigate their courses.

"He goes to a restaurant, it's closed, they open it for him and cook just for him -- that's sweet," Cornwell said. "To be where they are means they have been treated differently for some time. They have to develop some skills on how to handle that just like they do in playing skills. Maybe their greatest lesson to learn is that if other people treat you like God, that is only a problem when you start believing it."

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