Passan: Will You Cheer?

The startlingly brief sentence handed down to Browns WR Donte Stallworth started a million conversations across the internet. Many Browns fans will have mixed feelings if and when the receiver comes back. Will you?

The outrage that accompanies Donte' Stallworth's incredibly lenient punishment for DUI manslaughter is tempered by one troubling thought.

When the Browns wide receiver returns to the football field – and he will after National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell suspends him for a rather lengthy period of time – and catches his first pass, the fans will cheer.

If that catch contributes to the greater good as far as Browns fans are concerned, assuming he remains in Cleveland, what difference does it make that Stallworth took a man's life down in Miami? He caught a pass, right? And if it is for a touchdown, the cheers will ring loudly in his ears. And send him the wrong message.

Only in America can a man kill another man with his car while driving impaired, get off relatively Scot free and then reap the rewards of catching a pigskin in the shape of a prolate spheroid with the same hands that wrapped around the steering wheel of the car that took that man's life.

It's a good thing Stallworth can catch those footballs because it has made him a lot of money. So much money, in fact, it enabled him to buy his way out of what for you and me would have been a substantial prison term.

And if it weren't for the fact the wide receiver was under contract to the Browns, this whole sordid episode in his life would be nothing more than a blip on the screen as far as Browns fans were concerned. Just another football player who can't stay out of trouble.

Wouldn't it be nice if all of us could have enough income to buy our way out of just about anything life throws at us? Only in America can money buy a man's freedom.

Let's be perfectly honest. Donte' Stallworth is one very lucky young man.

He's lucky because he can catch a thrown football well enough and often enough to warrant employment in the National Football League.

He's lucky because he has earned a lot of money catching those footballs. Enough to make life comfortable for a very long time.

Luck, it has been said, is the residue of hard work. But in the case of Stallworth, it is the residue of the millions of dollars he's earned as a competent wide receiver in the best professional football league on the planet.

He's extremely fortunate the family of the dead man wanted closure and accepted a handsome out-of-court settlement to make everything go away. He's extremely fortunate he had the funds to make it happen.

Sometime in the next seven weeks, Stallworth will receive at least an eight-game suspension for his indiscretion. That's if Goodell follows the precedent his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, set with St. Louis Rams defensive lineman Leonard Little in 1999.

(It'll be interesting to see what uniform Stallworth will be wearing at the time of his next catch. It'll also be interesting to see how the Browns handle the situation once Stallworth is free to resume his career. The guess here is he has played his last game as a Cleveland Brown and Randy Lerner makes the call, perhaps over the objections of Eric Mangini and George Kokinis.)

Little was suspended for the first eight games of the 1999 season after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the 1998 automobile death of a St. Louis-area woman while he was driving drunk. He also served 90 days in jail with four years probation and 1,000 hours in community service.

Stallworth's punishment, aside from the meager jail stay, is somewhat harsher. Suspension of his driver's license for at least five years. And he must serve the first two years of his 10 years probation under house arrest.

Another main difference is that Stallworth expressed remorse for what he had done. Little never did. Stallworth said all the right things as events unfolded. He was distraught, did not flee the scene and cooperated fully, which gained him a modicum of sympathy from a segment of the fans.

And he is correct about one thing. This unfortunate incident will haunt him for the rest of his life no matter how many passes he catches or how many touchdowns he scores.

The stark fact remains he climbed behind the wheel of his expensive automobile after imbibing and struck and killed a man. Makes no difference whether the man was jaywalking. That's not a license to kill.

So the next time you see Stallworth catch a pass and begin to applaud, you might want to stop and think about that Miami family that lost its husband and father.

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