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OAKLAND On Aug. 23, 2003, Bill Romanowski and Marcus Williams had an altercation at practice. They were both Oakland Raiders, and so by definition, teammates. That day, Romanowski's hand landed on Williams' face with such devastating force, and with such a sickening thud, that a white man named Ryan Prince, another player, said the best word to describe it is "gross."
When the altercation was over, both Williams and Romanowski had taken their first steps away from football. That journey away from the field has brought them here to the third floor of the Oakland Alameda Administration building, in Judge Cecilia Castellano's courtroom, the venue in which Williams' civil suit (he's seeking millions in damages) against Romanowski is being heard.
Williams can't win. And as I sit through the trial, it makes me sick. Every morning at 9:30 a.m. when the bailiff monotones his "Jury's coming" announcement, I get a deep-seated loathing that coaxes the bile from my gut. And each day, it gets worse. I hate it for what happened in August of 2003, and I hate it for what might happen because of the lawsuit. But mostly, I hate it because he can't win.
Despite the particulars of the paths that brought them to this point Romanowski is white, and comes from a very white background in Vernon, Conn., and Boston College; Williams is black and grew up in very black Oakland Williams vs. Romanowski isn't about race. Not by a long shot. This isn't about Romanowski being white or Williams being black. It isn't about a white man hitting a black man. That information is factual, but coincidental in this case. I share it with you simply because this is a trial, and trials are about facts.
Fights occur on the field. That's a fact, too. In the throes of month-long, hot-as-hell training camps, fights occur almost every day. Two men scrap, obscenities are hurled, fists are thrown ... and then the two men are separated. Afterward, maybe as soon as later that day or perhaps the next, one man will approach the other and mumble something to the effect of "my bad."
And the football world resumes spinning on its football axis.
But this week, here in Oakland, it stopped spinning.
Here's the salient fact about this case: William Thomas Romanowski is on the witness stand because he crossed a line, a line that he hadn't crossed before despite a long record of game-time transgressions that earned him a rep as one of football's dirtiest players. Those other transgressions, rep or no rep, were in fact sweet and pure acts of the sort of athletic violence that make up the foundation of the game.
That Romanowski hit against Kerry Collins, a helmet-to-helmet stoning that left Collins with a broken jaw? The one that resulted in a $20,000 fine? That was football.
That hit against Trent Dilfer, when Romanowski launched himself head-first into the quarterback just as he released the ball? That one was worth a $10,000 fine. But that, too, was football.
What happened in the altercation with Williams, though, that August day in 2003 ... that wasn't football. It was an awful bulletin about losing control and not being able to get it back. After he crossed that line, Romanowski apologized, first to his teammates, then to fans in a television interview.
Somewhere in between then and now, he called Williams. He made the call from Willie Brown's office. Brown was the Raiders' secondary coach, who just happens to be black. Is that significant? I don't know. Just another fact to share. We don't know the details of that call, because no one has said anything about it.
Again, Williams can't win here. Players who pursue litigation against other players aren't going to find work anywhere else in the game. And that isn't just my opinion. That's another fact. It's a fact stated by George Paton, director of pro personnel for the Miami Dolphins. In his deposition, when asked why the Dolphins didn't sign Williams after he'd worked out for them, Paton first mumbled something about Williams not being in the best shape. But then he added, "He had the litigation thing."
Williams can't have peace. Peace won't be restored by the litigation, regardless of its outcome. Athletes don't sue one another. They don't seek revenge, at least not in a courtroom. They meet, they look one another in the eye, and they own up to what they've done. This assures that football always remains removed from the so-called real world, where no one talks and everyone lives in fear of breaking that code.
Romanowski can't win here, either. He can't win, even though he's right about one thing: He says this was about respect. On that point, Romanowski's reasoning and logic are absolutely flawless. He hit Williams because the younger, less-experienced Williams not only successfully blocked him on a running play, but also punctuated the act by pushing him. So the accomplished veteran did what all accomplished veterans do in that situation: He confronted Williams and reminded him that the older player is due some respect.
Like I said, he was right.
But the fatal flaw for Romanowski is that he failed to show Williams the same respect. He failed to respect him as a fellow player, and more importantly, as a man.
It's all in Romanowski's videotaped deposition. If the pendulum in this trial swings in Williams' favor, that deposition will have carried the most weight. In it, Romanowski barely conceals his disgust and arrogance. He makes no attempt to feign concern for Williams' welfare, or to question his own actions.
At one point, the prosecutor asks Romanowski: "Do you know what Marcus Williams' condition is?"
Romanowski replies with a condescending shrug: "No. Do you want to tell me?"
It's offensive, and not just to the people in the courtroom, nor just to the judge, the attorneys or the 16 jurors who watched it. It's offensive to everyone who has ever played football.
While I watched Romanowski, I recalled a time when George Seifert, then my coach with the 49ers, complimented Romo by saying that he was "really into it." Seifert meant that Romo was always "present" while he was on the field. He was never one to just go through the motions of being a football player.
When he took the stand on Tuesday afternoon, Romanowski definitely was "present." He broke down as he told the jury that during his career, the better he got, the more he became a target. Was he acting? I doubt it. The pressure here in the courtroom is real, and the consequences are real. I believe Romanowski's emotions are real.
Do I think he should pay? Yes, I think he should pay. He should pay Marcus Williams the respect he deserves, and then these two men should settle it between them. That's all.
Because if money changes hands in this case, we could end up right back here every time someone has a fight. And when that happens, we can't win.
Alan Grant is a former NFL defensive back and the author of "Return to Glory: Inside Tyrone Willingham's Amazing First Season at Notre Dame"