Anybody who thinks NFL commissioner Roger Goodell can provide a harsher punishment than Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte' Stallworth just received for killing a man needs to pay attention: It's not going to happen.
Goodell is in his comfort zone when it comes to hammering repeat violators of the law. He is equally capable of displaying adequate mercy when the opportunity arises. What he can't do, however, is wave a magic wand and appease the masses so incensed by the penalty a Florida judge handed Stallworth for his DUI manslaughter conviction.
Look, we all know Stallworth got off light. He walked out of a Miami hotel bar on March 14, hopped into his black Bentley and ran over 59-year-old Mario Reyes minutes later. Stallworth registered a .126 blood alcohol level when tested, well above the Florida legal limit of .08. Stallworth faced as much as 15 years in prison. He wound up with something laughable: a 30-day sentence, a lifetime suspension of his driver's license, 1,000 hours of community service, two years of house arrest and eight years of probation.
As weak as that penalty sounds, the important thing to remember is that Stallworth had his day in court and it obviously was a good one. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy saw all the evidence and heard all the statements. He clearly figured that Stallworth -- who called 911 after the accident and paid an undisclosed settlement to the Reyes family -- deserved as much leniency as the Miami-Dade prosecutor's office was offering. Now it's time for us to accept that Goodell's job isn't to deliver the knockout blow that Murphy and the state deemed unnecessary.
For one thing, there's a big difference between punishing Stallworth and hammering somebody like Adam "Pacman" Jones for continually running afoul of the law. Penalizing a player like Pacman has to be much easier because there's an established pattern of unacceptable behavior to consider. In the case of Stallworth, you're talking about a guy who has one other reported incident in the league -- the Philadelphia Inquirer reported two years ago that Stallworth had violated the league's substance abuse policy -- and did a dumb thing that led to devastating results. Whatever suspension Stallworth receives isn't going to come anywhere close to the burden he'll carry for killing Reyes.
You can look at St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little as proof of that. Little pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in 1998 after he killed Susan Gutweiler while drinking and driving on the night of his birthday. There also was plenty of indignation when he received a 90-day jail sentence, 1,000 hours of community service, four years of probation and an eight-game suspension by the league. But Little also said he attempted suicide shortly after that tragedy.
Even though Little didn't completely avoid trouble thereafter -- in 2005, he was convicted of misdemeanor speeding but acquitted of driving while intoxicated for a 2004 incident -- he still has to endure the guilt for what he did. There's no way those lost paychecks made him feel any worse than he does when he drives past the spot where he struck Gutweiler, which he does every time he heads from his home to the team facility. To be honest, it's quite possible that Little hardly ever thinks about that suspension when contemplating the weight of what he did.
Little's case also is significant because there is at least some precedent here for Goodell to follow. The commissioner also has to consider the fact that Stallworth didn't run from his mistake. He accepted full responsibility at the time of the accident, and he's willing to get involved in drunken-driving education. Stallworth deserves some credit for that.
If anything, Goodell should find a way to get Stallworth more involved in educating other players on the dangers of drinking and driving. The league has a program in place that allows players to a call a car service in any major city that will pick them up if they've been drinking. It's a great idea, except for the fact that some players don't trust it. They believe too many phone calls to that service will lead to more hassles from franchises when contract negotiations begin.
If that is the case, Goodell and the NFL Players Association need to get together and create more confidentiality -- and confidence -- in that system. The idea is to protect the players, but it's obvious that public concerns have to weigh in to these decisions as well. Reyes was a construction crane operator who was rushing to catch a bus home when Stallworth hit him. He left behind a family that wisely felt it was best to accept Stallworth's settlement and move on with their lives.
By the way, I'm not saying Goodell should take it easy on Stallworth. I just don't believe that whatever punishment Goodell doles out will have that much effect on how Stallworth behaves in the future. In many ways, I feel similarly about the decision Goodell has to make on former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who's nearing the end of his sentence for his involvement in an illegal dogfighting ring. Vick already has served two years in prison, and his bankruptcy issues are the only reason he might squirm under a Goodell suspension.
What it ultimately comes down to is how the player decides to move forward in these situations. I have no doubt Stallworth deserved a stiffer punishment in court and that he's committed to making amends as best he can. So we need to accept that he already has faced the toughest scrutiny he ever could face in this case. In other words, anybody who's already pained by Stallworth's recent punishment shouldn't expect to feel any better when Goodell drops his own hammer.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.