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Friday, June 19, 2009
Updated: June 20, 7:54 AM ET
NFL ruling a savvy political move

By Jeffri Chadiha
ESPN.com

Commissioner Roger Goodell, Browns WR Donte' Stallworth, NFLPA executive DeMaurice Smith (l-r)
Commissioner Roger Goodell (left) and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith (right) will need time to consider the issues surrounding the suspension of Browns wide receiver Donte' Stallworth.

Once you get past all the tough talk, you can see what the suspension NFL commissioner Roger Goodell just gave Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte' Stallworth is really about: politics. The commissioner knew the public was waiting to see how hard he would come down on Stallworth, who recently pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter. Goodell also wanted to send a message to the rest of the league about the consequences of alcohol-related offenses. To punish Stallworth, the commissioner levied an indefinite suspension without pay. The penalty sounds much harsher than it might prove to be.

What Goodell understood is that he quickly had to distance his league from the tragic accident that killed 59-year-old Mario Reyes in Miami on March 14. There's no way the commissioner could sympathize publicly with Stallworth, who was legally drunk when his black Bentley struck Reyes that morning. But Goodell also can't pretend there aren't other factors that weigh on this case.

Since the Miami-Dade district attorney gave Stallworth a lenient plea agreement -- one that included a 30-day jail sentence, two years of house arrest and a lifetime suspension of Stallworth's driver's license -- the commissioner also has to give adequate consideration to how he disciplines a decent guy for a horrible mistake.

That's why the term "indefinite" sounds more ominous than some people might think. It really means Goodell can take ample time to study the important elements of this case. He also can meet with Stallworth (who's currently serving that jail sentence) to get the player's side of the story. As much as Goodell wants the public to know he's not going easy on Stallworth, you can bet he wants to gauge Stallworth's remorse in person. Remember, the whole point of this process is to prevent a similar incident from happening again.

As I've said before, there should be no question about Stallworth's willingness to accept responsibility for this tragedy. He was the guy who called 911 after the accident and he cooperated fully with the police. Stallworth also gave the Reyes family an undisclosed financial settlement that led to his plea arrangement's being so light. At no point in this case has he given the indication that he's a rich, spoiled athlete who doesn't understand the magnitude of his actions.

That fact is ultimately what makes Goodell's job harder now. There really is no fair way to exact a punishment that takes into account Stallworth's contrition while also pacifying the people who were so incensed by the deal Stallworth cut in the legal system. If Goodell banned Stallworth for a full season, the NFL Players Association easily could file a grievance and point to the fact that St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little received an eight-game suspension in 1998 for killing a woman during a drunken-driving accident. And if Goodell decides to let Stallworth play at some point this year, he'll likely have picket lines and pitchforks waiting outside his office from bitter protesters.

The reality is that Goodell is wise to not put a definitive length on Stallworth's suspension right now. The environment is too heated, the anger far too palpable. What the commissioner surely realizes is that hard feelings tend to fade over time. At some point, another story will occupy the public's attention and Goodell's ruling won't seem nearly as provocative by that point.

Another issue Goodell has to weigh is how the players view his decisions. It's no secret that some people in the NFL Players Association wonder if the commissioner is wielding too much power when it comes to disciplinary actions, or that some are concerned he's been given the ability to hammer offenders however he so chooses. That isn't to say the union is out to make light of this tragedy. It just means that Stallworth still has rights to consider, even with the death of another man hanging over his head.

So it will be interesting to see what Goodell decides once he meets with Stallworth. After all, this isn't a case in which the commissioner has to worry that a troubled player might lie to him (as Michael Vick did when faced with evidence of his involvement in an illegal dogfighting ring). And it's not a case in which Goodell has to deal with a player who clearly has a hard time controlling his behavior (as was the case with Adam "Pacman" Jones). The conversation between Goodell and Stallworth likely will have more to do with explanations and remorse. It's a discussion that should leave Goodell with the answers he certainly wants to hear.

And when Goodell eventually does specify the length of Stallworth's suspension, it wouldn't be shocking to hear it won't last the entire season. The last time Goodell issued an indefinite suspension, it went to Jones and ultimately lasted six games. That doesn't mean the commissioner should attach the same weight to Jones' offenses as he would to the killing of an innocent man in Florida. It's just a suggestion that we shouldn't be surprised if Goodell's next ruling on this matter isn't nearly as menacing as his first.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.