Fans of sports teams want one thing in return for the ticket money and emotional support they invest -- a team they can root for, a team they can embrace. If it so happens that the team is a winner, those fans are extra fortunate. But win or lose, what they want above all is a team they can be proud of, or at the very least, not be embarrassed by.
The Ravens have built up a lot of equity in this area over the years. They've won a lot of games, played hard week after week and become an integral part of their community. They've moved through their days with a high degree of professionalism. Have there been setbacks, black-eye moments both on and off the field? Absolutely. I'm sure you remember them. But their positives have far outnumbered their negatives, enabling them to build a strong reputation and a loyal following.
It is that equity that enables them to sign Donte' Stallworth with their heads held high, not fearing the fallout from bringing in a receiver who was suspended for the 2009 season after pleading guilty to a DUI manslaughter charge.
From a football standpoint, the move is a no-brainer. The Ravens' top priority in this offseason is to find more dangerous targets for quarterback Joe Flacco. Stallworth, 29, isn't the No. 1 guy they're looking for – they'll make several more moves at the position, I'm guessing – but he has a ton of speed and has made his share of big plays in his seven NFL seasons. As long as his year away hasn't ruined him, he can help. And most importantly, he came ridiculously cheap, in a one-year deal, so the Ravens have little to lose. It's a low-risk signing with potentially high rewards, the kind teams are smart to take.
The only drawback is, of course, Stallworth's off-field baggage, which is crammed with red-flag issues. He made a gargantuan mistake, drove drunk at 7 a.m., and another person died. And he only served 24 days in jail -- as opposed to the two years Michael Vick served for killing dogs, or the two years Plaxico Burress is serving for shooting himself – drawing criticism from drunk-driving groups.
In a perfect world, the Ravens wouldn't have to resort to signing a player with such issues. But let's face it, they're first job is to try to put a winning team on the field, and to their credit, they unabashedly admit they have to compromise their standards now and then. As owner Steve Bisciotti said at the "State of the Ravens" press conference on Feb. 3, "You're not going to have 53 angels."
When you're the Ravens, with all that equity in hand and a reputation for making sound decisions, you can say that, bring in a Stallworth and still look your fans in the eye.
"I don't think that mistakes are necessarily a sign of poor character. I think repeating mistakes is the closest sign to bad character that you can look at," Bisciotti said.
Fair enough. But you can't do this all the time. You have to pick your spots. Because no matter how you spin it, you're gambling, putting your credibility on the line. When Ozzie Newsome said the Ravens had "given a lot of thought to this" and "done extensive research into Donte' beyond football," he was essentially saying they believed he wouldn't embarrass them. We'll see.
But while many fans I know would rather root for players with unimpeachable character, they also believe in second chances. Stallworth has made a horrific mistake, stood before a judge, and paid his debt to society -- a debt the courts deemed appropriate. The NFL has punished him. A sorry chapter in his life has played itself to an end, for better or worse. It is time for him to get on with his life, earn a wage and hopefully try to make the next chapter better.
Stallworth sounded deeply humble and profoundly remorseful in the statement the Ravens released, saying he has made changes. By demonstrating he has changed, not just saying it, he can make this marriage a happy one.
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.