Commentary

Goodell delivers proper justice

Originally Published: June 18, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Unlike the high-powered attorney who represented Donte' Stallworth this week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell doesn't mince words or debate the esoteric differences between a plaintiff's plea bargain and a court's guilty verdict.

Instead, it is Goodell's sometimes thankless charge to protect the integrity of the NFL and to uphold the symbolism of what the commissioner refers to as "The Shield" -- the league's famous logo.

By suspending Stallworth indefinitely Thursday evening, Goodell did just that. And he demonstrated once again that, for him, there are very few shades of gray. Remember this: Goodell thinks in black and white, and not once did Stallworth suggest that it was someone else who ran down Mario Reyes in March with his car.

A Miami judge and Reyes' family might have believed that the victim's death was a mistake of judgment by the Cleveland Browns wide receiver. For Goodell, however, the matter was more cut and dried. Because of Stallworth's decision to drive under the influence of alcohol, a 59-year-old man is dead.

Just like it's not possible to be "a little bit pregnant," there aren't degrees of dead. Forget vengeance; someone must pay for that death. And that someone is Stallworth, who might have seen his professional football career ended, or at best interrupted, by poor judgment.

Some players snidely refer to Goodell as "The Hangin' Judge." That characterization might be somewhat accurate, but as commissioner, Goodell is the NFL's judge and jury. His punitive actions -- banishing players who don't seem to understand that playing in the league is a privilege that does, indeed, make them different -- might not follow the letter of every civil law.

But, and this is more important, Goodell follows his conscience.

In his letter to Stallworth explaining the rationale of the indefinite suspension, Goodell termed the veteran wide receiver's actions "inexcusable." One might argue that suspending Stallworth, after a court sentenced him to just 30 days in jail and two years' house arrest, is ethically flawed. But morally, it is the right thing to do. And more often than not, in meting out punishment, Goodell does the right thing.

In 1998, when St. Louis defensive end Leonard Little pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the death of Susan Gutweiler, he received a suspension of eight games without pay. No one asked Gutweiler's son, left motherless after Little decided to drive drunk through the streets of St. Louis, if the ruling was fair.

No one is bound to ask Goodell, either, if the suspension of Stallworth is apt punishment for the wide receiver. In their heart of hearts, most people who felt Stallworth's sentence was light, and perhaps the product of his financial wherewithal, knew that Thursday's ruling was the right thing to do.

Goodell obviously did, too.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.