Goodell should seek to prevent, not to punish
At least 73 players who appeared on NFL rosters last season have, at one time or another, been arrested for driving under the influence, according to a search of published reports by Yahoo! Sports.
No active players were accused of running an interstate dogfighting ring.
So here comes NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has vowed to crack down on illegal and immoral behavior by players. He has claimed the authority to unilaterally suspend any player for nearly any transgression.
He can have at it. No one is going to shed a tear for a misbehaving millionaire getting punished.
However, Goodell’s evolving disciplinary system should be focused on prevention, not politics or publicity.
Vick is the league’s highest profile felon. He just finished a 19-month federal prison stint and is currently on house arrest in Virginia. His crime was funding and operating a barbaric dogfighting organization. His case attracted massive media attention and well organized protests.
Stallworth is just beginning a monthlong stay in a Florida jail – he’ll be eligible for release in as few as 24 days – for DUI manslaughter, an incident that didn’t garner widespread coverage until he received such a light sentence.
“The conduct reflected in your guilty plea resulted in the tragic loss of life and was inexcusable,” Goodell said in a letter to Stallworth on Thursday while announcing his suspension.
“While the criminal justice system has determined the legal consequences of this incident, it is my responsibility as NFL commissioner to determine appropriate league discipline for your actions, which have caused irreparable harm to the victim and his family, your club, your fellow players and the NFL.”
So what’s Goodell’s motivation?
If the suspensions are to serve as punishment in addition to the criminal justice system or to placate public outrage to show the league cares, then the commissioner is stepping on a slippery slope. Using league discipline as part super judge (righting the wrongs of the criminal justice system) and part public relations ploy (quieting high profile protesters) shouldn’t be the goal.
Deterring future behavior by other players should be.
Stallworth, like everyone in America, already knew that driving drunk was against the law. He did it anyway. Perhaps nothing would’ve stopped him.
But perhaps, if he thought getting caught, even without a pedestrian dying, would cause him significant problems at work, it would’ve been the extra motivation to call a cab.
Or perhaps it will work on the next guy.
At the legal level, comparing the crimes and the punishments of Vick and Stallworth is not particularly useful.
Vick stood no chance, especially when he defiantly was the last of his crew to admit guilt. By that point, he was hit hard for what were years of criminal behavior.
Vick’s 23-month sentence was nearly the maximum of federal sentencing guidelines. He also lost his $100 million contract and all his endorsements. His actions are unforgivable to some, but the federal legal system (the most unforgiving we have) believes he paid a hefty debt for them.
Stallworth, on the other hand, worked a sweetheart deal. His monthlong jail term is certainly absurd – after all, the man spent a night partying only to drunk drive his Bentley into a construction worker coming off a shift.
There were other circumstances, though, including cooperation with police, the wishes of the victim’s family and the fact that as severe as the result, it was a one-time mistake.
The court and the defendant made a deal. That’s our system. Fair, sensible or not, Stallworth will be out by training camp.
Goodell should make sure training camp goes off without him anyway but not to make up for the leniency of the plea deal. That should remain outside of his jurisdiction and thought process.
He should do it because drunk driving is epidemic among NFL players (as it is in much of America). A San Diego Union-Tribune study found DUIs account for 28 percent of all NFL player arrests since 2000.
While no drunk driver merits sympathy, it’s a particular slap in the face coming from young men who can easily afford limos to chauffeur them around town. Some teams even use a company called Safe Ride Solutions, which will pick up any player and drive him home for free without ever disclosing his name to team management.
Player DUIs often get scant media attention. Yet, compared to some of the incidents that generate notice, they pose a greater danger to the general public. A late night brawl at a strip club makes headlines, but for someone other than employees to be affected they need to be at a strip club late at night in the first place.
Stallworth hit Mario Reyes at 7:15 a.m. as Reyes was trying to get home to his wife and teenage daughter after working all night. At that time of morning, it could’ve been anyone.
The next time it might be. Which is why when he doles out his summer justice, Goodell should focus on stopping the most common crimes and not just further punishing the sensational.
While anything is possible, the idea that any NFL player, including Vick, would ever run a dogfighting ring again seems remote.
DUI manslaughter, we know, isn’t.