Commentary

Stallworth did right thing, after a wrong

Updated: August 21, 2009, 12:05 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | Page 2

Count me among those who seriously questioned whether "justice" was properly meted out to Donte' Stallworth, the NFL wide receiver who spent only 24 days in jail after pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter.

Let me restate the obvious for the thousandth time: Michael Vick got almost two years in federal prison for killing dogs. While his harsh sentence stemmed in part from lying to federal authorities and operating an illegal gambling franchise, there's no question Stallworth's jail term made us all wonder about the value of human life.

Donte' Stallworth
AP Photo/Marice Cohn BandDonte' Stallworth is a free man right now, in large part because of what he did after his crime.

But putting aside the criticism of the way the judicial system dealt with Stallworth, a lot of athletes who find themselves in serious trouble could learn from the way Stallworth handled a situation that altered his life dramatically.

No matter what you think of Stallworth as a person or your opinion about his sentence, doing the right thing in a crucial moment saved him from suffering the same fate as Plaxico Burress and Michael Vick and spared him from similar public condemnation.

When Stallworth struck and killed Mario Reyes on a Miami causeway, he didn't flee the scene. He called 911 immediately and cooperated with the authorities from the beginning.

That and an undisclosed financial settlement to Reyes' family obviously went a long way with those who decided Stallworth's punishment.

Giving Stallworth credit for doing the right thing may seem odd, but it seems like most athletes choose to compound their wrongdoing with more wrongdoing, which only exacerbates already-problematic situations.

Before accepting a plea bargain that includes a two-year prison term, Burress and his legal team sent the message to New York City prosecutors that Burress was above doing jail time for accidentally shooting himself with an unlicensed firearm in a Manhattan nightclub.

There have been various reports about the plea agreements offered to Burress before the one he took Thursday, but it's quite possible that some of the prosecutors' previous offers would have had him out of jail in less than two years (or 20 months with good behavior). Burress should have known that once New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg lashed out against him, he was in a no-win situation.

"I think it would be an outrage if we didn't prosecute to the fullest extent of the law," Bloomberg said last November, "particularly people who live in the public domain, make their living because of their visibility -- they're the role models for our kids."

[+] EnlargePlaxico Burress
AP Photo/Seth WenigPlaxico Burress is staring at two years in prison, and quite possibly the end of his NFL career.

A combination of arrogance, disbelief and denial probably prevented Burress from seeing the obvious, and it has cost him his freedom and possibly his football career.

Stallworth did the opposite, even though -- like Burress -- he was facing a possible 15-year prison sentence.

Though there were questions about whether the traces of marijuana in Stallworth's system and his 0.126 blood-alcohol content were the primary cause of his tragic accident, that didn't prevent him from taking full responsibility for his actions. And Stallworth certainly never sent the message to authorities that he was above the law because he played in the NFL.

And unlike Vick, Stallworth never lied to the authorities. Vick, on the other hand, not only lied to the Feds; he also lied to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Falcons owner Arthur Blank.

The fact that Vick financed a dogfighting operation for several years shows a consistent willingness to break the law, which didn't sit well with anyone who had input into his punishment. But if Vick had not engaged in a full-blown cover-up, the authorities might have been more flexible.

There's something to be gained by following a wrong with a right. To date, Jason Giambi has never faced the same backlash or judicial issues as others that have been fingered for using performance-enhancing drugs. Giambi played ball with the federal government and testified in the BALCO case. He didn't pull a Marion Jones, whose repeated lies about her steroid use led to six months in jail. And give me Giambi's vague apology over Alex Rodriguez's bumbling mea culpa for steroid use any day.

By no means am I trying to paint Stallworth or Giambi as heroes or give either one a pass. As it is, Stallworth should consider himself lucky he didn't commit DUI manslaughter in New York, where lawmakers are seeking to beef up the state's drunk-driving laws by charging drunk drivers who kill someone with second-degree murder.

But it isn't fair to lump Stallworth in the same category as Vick and Burress. The disparity in their prison sentences isn't the only thing they don't have in common.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com

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