For everyone who wondered if the life of an animal was worth more than that of a human's, the NFL has given its answer.
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte' Stallworth(notes), who pleaded guilty in June to DUI manslaughter, was suspended for the entire 2009 season by the NFL on Thursday even though the legal system only made him serve 24 days in jail. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell informed Stallworth of the suspension, which was based on both the personal conduct and substance-abuse policies.
Stallworth, who struck and killed Mario Reyes, 59, on March 14 in Miami, will serve a far more substantial punishment than the conditional suspension handed down to Michael Vick(notes) in July. Ultimately, the decision by Goodell should silence the critics who have argued that Vick, who served a 23-month federal sentence for his role in a dogfighting ring, has been punished unduly when compared to Stallworth. Not that Goodell had to prove that point, but it serves that end regardless.
The problem in weighing Vick vs. Stallworth from a legal standpoint is that the situations were incredibly different, greatly impacting how they were treated by the judicial system. Vick faced a multitude of charges, and denied and lied for months before he ultimately admitted guilt. Stallworth took full and immediate responsibility for his actions, and has been sorrowful and contrite. He didn't waste time fighting the court system over his guilt, even though he could have argued under Florida law that Reyes had been partially responsible for the accident. Reyes was filmed jaywalking at the time of the accident, a significant issue under Florida law.
On Thursday, Stallworth, who also reportedly tested positive for marijuana after the accident, issued a statement where he continued to take the high road.
"Obviously, I am disappointed, but, as I said previously, I accept the commissioner's decision," Stallworth wrote. "Regardless of the length of my suspension, I will carry the burden of Mr. Reyes' death for the rest of my life.
"I urge NFL fans not to judge NFL players or me based on my tragic lapse in judgment. I am a good person who did a bad thing. I will use the period of my suspension to reflect, fulfill my obligations, and use this experience to make a positive impact on the lives of those who look up to NFL players."
Ultimately, the most important goal of Goodell's decision for the NFL is that other players get the message. The league's desire is that those players learn something about the privilege of playing in the NFL and the duty that players have to each other.
Houston Texans defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina(notes), heading into his 17th NFL season, understands that duty. While Zgonina has compassion and sympathy for Stallworth and Vick, and believes they deserve a second chance, he's quite familiar of the ugly impact of these incidents. Zgonina was a member of the St. Louis Rams when defensive end Leonard Little(notes) killed a woman motorist while driving drunk.
Zgonina and the rest of the Rams players, coaches and other employees had to walk past protesters to play games in the aftermath of Little's eight-game suspension from then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, a penalty that many considered too light.
"People have a right to say what they want to say, to protest or whatever," Zgonina said. "But it was definitely uncomfortable for everyone."
Moreover, Zgonina has felt the personal side of other players' mistakes.
"As an NFL player, that reflects on you," Zgonina said. "People look at you and think, 'Oh, you must be doing the same thing, you're out of control.' … What the commissioner is doing right now, I'm all for it. It's good. It's what we need as a league. You just hope that guys get it and make the most of a second chance."
What Goodell did Thursday with Stallworth was significant in that regard. Goodell could have leaned on the legal system and given Stallworth a chance to return this season.
Goodell didn't. He took Stallworth to task, punishing Stallworth harder than he punished Vick. Goodell balanced the ledger between the legal system and what the NFL needs to do to teach players and protect its image.
That idea of image may bother some people who think that's all this is about: protecting the flow of money. On face value, that's true, but this issue runs deeper than just some cash. It's about the image and integrity of thousands of people.
It's about those people understanding what is both expected of them and trusting that they, in a sense, will be protected from the mistakes of others.
In that way, this decision was just, fair and balanced.
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