Almost a year before Donte' Stallworth(notes) was charged for killing a pedestrian while allegedly driving drunk, the national office for Mothers Against Drunk Driving got a call from the NFL. That may help explain why top officials with MADD have withheld judgment on the case involving Stallworth, the Cleveland Browns wide receiver who since his March 14 accident has drawn neither rebuke nor sanction from the league or the team.
Michael Vick(notes) and dogfighting. The misadventures of Adam "Pacman" Jones. Plaxico Burress(notes) and a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Those are the criminal matters often cited in relation to the NFL, yet drunken driving remains the league's biggest off-field problem, and it's unclear how commissioner Roger Goodell intends to address the matter.
Stallworth seen leaving a Dade County detention center with his mother last month.
(Jeffrey M. Boan/AP Photo)
The problem is undeniable: Tracking arrests involving NFL players since 2000, a study by the San Diego Union-Tribune published last month found that 28 percent of the incidents – by far the highest percentage – were related to drunken driving. At least 73 players on NFL rosters during the 2008 season have been arrested on charges of driving under the influence, according to a search of published reports by Yahoo! Sports.
Now Stallworth's case has moved the issue to the forefront.
Stallworth was scheduled for an arraignment hearing on Thursday, but it has been postponed until June. As a result of the case, the NFL has opened itself to greater scrutiny.
It started with a call to MADD in June 2008.
That's when Cathey Wise, chief development officer for MADD, said she spoke to Mike Haynes, then vice president of player development for the NFL. Haynes, who wasn't available for comment, told Wise he was calling at the behest of Goodell and that the NFL commissioner "was fed up with DUIs," according to Wise.
"He basically wanted to open a dialogue," Wise said during a recent interview. "Are we interested in working with the league? What did we think about substance abuse and drug abuse? What was our approach to drinking and driving?"
The first call led to a series of talks. Then in March, two weeks before Stallworth's accident, the NFL requested a proposal outlining a formal partnership with MADD.
"We took it as genuine interest in what we can do to address the problem in the league," Wise said. "It's not like it was, here's a high-profile incident and the NFL said, 'Oh, my God. What can we do to save face?' "
Yet now the NFL is grappling with a high-profile incident, and MADD is waiting for the league to respond to the proposal it submitted in March.
"We have had several conversations with the organization, but there is nothing definitive to discuss," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in a recent email.
But MADD seems less concerned with what the NFL has to say than what it does. A decade ago, members of the organization took aim against the league and its handling of a drunken-driving fatality involving one of its players.
Nov. 15, 1999. Game day. About 150 protestors organized by MADD rallied outside of the St. Louis Rams' stadium.
Leonard Little(notes), a defensive end for the Rams, had pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 1998 after his blood-alcohol content was found to be more than twice the legal limit when Little's car collided with another and the driver was killed. The protest coincided with Little's return after he served an eight-game suspension imposed by the NFL.
"Is eight enough? St. Louis, it's time to get MADD," one banner read.
Fast forward seven years. Goodell replaces Paul Tagliabue as commissioner and announces it's time to get tough on wayward players.
Goodell's advocates will point out that he strengthened the league's personal conduct policy and has followed through by suspending Jones and 11 others since April 2007, according to the Union-Tribune's report. He's now withholding judgment on whether he'll reinstate Vick as the suspended quarterback completes his sentence with home confinement.
But then came the March 14 accident that left a pedestrian dead and Stallworth facing up to 15 years in prison.
So far the league has taken no public action against Stallworth, even though the Philadelphia Inquirer reported two years ago that he was in the NFL's substance-abuse program for undisclosed reasons.
MADD is not the only group watching to see how the NFL handles the situation and drunken driving now that Goodell privately has acknowledged it's a vexing problem.
"I think maybe this is one case that kind of slipped out of the heightened rules and regulations of the NFL," said Dave Czesniuk, director of operations for the highly regarded Sport in Society program at Northeastern University. "… I think the NFL is a little bit under the gun across the board in regard to alcohol: excessive consumption at games and who has access to it and how a sport has been historically tied to excessive consumption."
Cutting ties with the alcohol industry would be a costly step for the NFL. In 2005, Coors paid the league $500 million to remain the NFL's official beer through 2010.
The deal caught the attention of critics. What has received less attention is a program designed to reduce DUIs among NFL players.
In 2006, an off-duty police officer in San Diego began tailing Steve Foley(notes), then a linebacker with the San Diego Chargers. Suspecting Foley was driving drunk, the officer ordered Foley to pull over and shot Foley after the player allegedly ignored the officer.
Shaken by the incident, a San Diego police detective joined forces with then-Chargers running back Lorenzo Neal(notes) and started a company that helps make sure NFL players who have been out drinking get home safely. The company, Safe Ride Solutions, is endorsed by the NFL, and uses current and former law enforcement officials to drive home players in the players' own vehicles.
The company's success depends in large part on confidentiality, said Gary Lawrence, the police detective who conceived the idea.
"They don't want the owners to look at them in a negative light if they use the service," Lawrence said. "They don't want them to think they have an alcohol problem if they don't."
The Chargers were the first NFL team to use Safe Ride Solutions. Though the NFL leaves the decision up to teams, a league spokesman said 75 percent of teams now use such services.
"I think it would be a really good idea to do something like that leaguewide," said Richard Lapchick, considered one of the country's foremost experts on social issues in sport. "It would put an exclamation point on the issue from the league itself."
Instead, the punctuation remains a question mark as the league continues to grapple with the problem.
About 18 players have been arrested on charges of drunken driving during each of the past three seasons, according to a league source who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity. Wise said she recalled Haynes citing an average of 30 such arrests each year.
Little has racked up 81 sacks … and some bad publicity in his career.
Based on either figure, statistics show the arrest rate for NFL players is lower than the national rate for men between the ages of 21 and 35, a group that's responsible for a disproportionate number of DUI arrests.
Wise, however, said her discussions with the league executive who initiated talks with MADD made it clear where Goodell stands on the issue.
"The commissioner was pretty well done with it and really wanted to address this in a more aggressive way," Wise said.
Under current NFL policy, a player convicted of drunken driving can be fined up to $50,000. Repeat offenders face likely suspension. Now NFL lawbreakers appear to face a heightened prospect of more serious consequences.
Earlier this month, for example, the New Orleans Saints released two players less than 48 hours after they had been arrested for allegedly being drunk and exposing themselves to two women in a parking lot. Teams have become quicker to jettison players after arrests, but mostly when those players are expendable backups.
Stallworth, by contrast, earned a $4.5 million roster bonus the day before the accident.
While MADD waits to see how the NFL handles Stallworth's situation, it also waits for a response from the league on its proposal.
"Obviously the NFL is in a leadership position in our country, and we look forward to creating a mutually beneficial relationship," Wise said. "… We're cautiously optimistic."