Special to Page 2
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.