Even if you don’t like football, you’ve probably heard of Donte’ Stallworth. Back in March 2009, the then-Cleveland Browns wide receiver made news when, driving drunk the morning after a night of partying with friends, he struck and killed a pedestrian crossing a Miami street.
Stallworth ended up serving just 30 days in jail. He also reached a financial settlement with the victim’s family and was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2009 season, but he couldn’t dodge being seen as just another celebrity escaping justice by virtue of being rich and famous. After his return to football in 2010, Stallworth never again was quite the same. He was a free agent for the entire 2013 season, and after 10 years in the league, his time in football might be over.
For most, that’d be the end of life in the limelight. But Stallworth has gotten a jump on an unusual second act: On the strength of his social-media savvy and his passion for foreign-policy wonkery, he has built a Twitter following of some 143,000 users, who check in with @DonteStallworth to get his take on everything from the latest blown call to the last Snowden revelation (the most recent being a flash mob in New York City this week to encourage people to sign up for health care). And along with Chris Kluwe and Richard Sherman, he’s pushing back against the dumb-jock stereotype, one tweet at a time.
I recently caught up with Stallworth to talk about his future in the NFL, football and concussions, and how he uses Twitter to interact with the world.
Mother Jones: First of all, given that you last played for Washington, what’s your take on the controversy over the team’s name?
Donte’ Stallworth: I’ve heard both sides of the argument. I don’t know. I mean for one, I do feel like the name itself is obviously—it’s a derogatory term toward a certain racial and ethnic group. However, at the same time, I do know that there have been many Native people—I don’t like to call them “Native Americans,” I guess, definitely not “Indians”—I’ve seen and read a lot about there’s a big number of Natives that don’t mind the Redskins name and they actually embrace it. Although there are a number of groups as well that are opposed to it.
I think that the whole stigma of the name may still burn deep with some of the Native people, but there are some that it doesn’t bother. They actually think it brings enlightenment to the contributions that the Native Americans had in the establishment of our country, but I haven’t come up with an idea. I’ve been trying to think either way, and I mean, I don’t think [owner Dan] Snyder or anyone else in the Redskins organization mean any harm. The team name was changed to the Redskins for—I forgot the name—it basically was an honorary name change, it wasn’t anything derogatory at the time. I’m not saying the name “Redskins” wasn’t derogatory, but the actual changing the name to the Washington Redskins was an honorary move.
So for me it’s up in the air, honestly. And I’ve been really wrestling with this because, yes, at the end of the day it is a derogatory term, the actual word. But even the Native people themselves are torn between this issue. So I think that there’s a lot of other issues that they’d like to address first before addressing the Redskins name. There’s a high suicide rate within their living arrangements throughout the country, there’s poverty, so there’s a lot of other issues that I’m sure they would like to have handled before the Redskins name.
MJ: This was also a big year for the NFL and brain trauma. What is your take on the conversation that is taking place right now?
DS: My first year in the NFL was 2002 and up until last year, I’ve seen a major change in the way they’ve handled concussions. Player safety is definitely something that has to be at the top of the list, because I think every year you’re in the NFL you probably lose three or five years off your lifespan. It’s just an issue that needs to be taken seriously, and I think that the union and the NFL are doing all they can to make sure they’re protecting the players the best they can.
But you’re never going to get rid of the injuries. The injuries are going to happen as long as there’s football, especially the way it’s always been played. So that’s something that won’t go away. But I guess they’re trying to do the best they can to reduce those injuries and really take guys out of harm’s way as much as they can.
I don’t know what the NFL’s going to look like in 15 years. Who knows. It’s a great game; it’s done a lot for me in my life. Malcolm Gladwell was on TV maybe a couple months ago talking about wanting to have college football banned. I’m sure someone has expressed that before but maybe not of Malcolm Gladwell’s stature. It’s interesting just because of him even bringing the topic up. Sooner or later, whether people are for or against it whether they like it or not, that is going to be a discussion that is going to come up. That’s how it all starts—someone brings up the inquiry: Should we continue to let our children play Pop Warner, high school, and college football? Ten, 15, 20 years from now, who knows where that conversation is going to be.
MJ: It’s hard as a fan. I feel conflicted supporting the game and then watching what players go through.
DS: I think it’s starting to hit guys, especially the veteran guys that are three, four, five years in the league, and you see these older guys that have been out of the league five, 10, 15, 20 years and they’re coming up with all of these brain diseases and just different kind of diseases, not just brain diseases, but a whole bunch of different kind of stuff and it’s like, “Wow. Yes, I had fun, yes, the NFL opened me up to a lot of different things, but damn, was it really all worth it when I’m in a wheelchair at the age of 45 and can’t play with my grandkids?”
Those are things that I’ve honestly thought about over the course of the last year or so. Which, honestly, would help make my transition a lot easier to my next career.
MJ: Your Twitter followers wouldn’t be surprised to see you become a geopolitical analyst next. How’d you get so interested in foreign policy?
DS: Ever since I was a kid I’ve always loved history. I think that kind of catapulted things, but I would say the two major factors were maybe 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama. For me, 9/11, it was my last year in college and I didn’t know anything about Al Qaeda, I didn’t know anything about bin Laden, I had no idea. I think probably after a few years when I started seeing how the country and the policy was shifting due to terrorism, I wanted to know: Why are these people terrorizing us, and who are they?
Once I got to digging up on that, and then you listen to Bush when he said that they hate us because of our freedoms. At the time I didn’t know any better, so I had no choice but to understand or at least believe what he was saying. But then I thought about it and I was like, “That can’t be the reason why they’re doing what they’re doing, why they bombed US embassies in Africa, why they bombed one of our ships and then 9/11.”
MJ: And what happened after Obama’s election?
DS: You know, I’ve never thought that I would see any man of color, not just a black president, but any man of color, I never thought that I would live to see that. I thought maybe my grandchildren would, but I never thought I would. So when he first started to run I was like, “I’ve never heard of this guy—he probably doesn’t have a shot.” But then he started picking up steam and that piqued my interest. Now I gotta figure out who this guy is. Looking in his background and seeing where he came from, it was a pretty interesting story.
So I think all of that really made me to what I am today, which really springs my attitude toward foreign policy was through 9/11, the Patriot Act, the FISA/warrantless wiretapping, Gitmo, kidnapping, extrajudicial killings, all that. I just started researching. What other countries have the capability to do this? And what kind of precedent are we setting with other countries when they have the capabilities that we have?
Once I started I couldn’t stop because there was always something else. Once I thought I had the hang of it then there was another branch that I got branched off to; it’s a never-ending, nonstop journey of knowledge. It hasn’t stopped since then. I have a lot of friends that laugh at me and make fun of me because I’m so into politics. If there’s ever something on, they’ll tweet me or call or text and say, “Hey what’s this about?” and I’m like, “Yeah, you guys were laughing at me like three, four years ago and now you want to know.”
MJ: Some of your tweets are pretty controversial. How do people react to this stuff when you’re on Twitter?
DS: For the most part it’s positive. I get a lot of people that are thanking me for speaking out about certain issues. I get people telling me, “If you don’t like it here, then there’s plenty of other countries to go to,” which is hilarious to me. I don’t take anything personal.
A lot of people are blinded by their love for this country. Anyone that knows me will tell you that any time we’re going somewhere, if there’s a US flag, they’ll always point it out because they know I love it. Just how our whole country started and just the migration of Europeans to this country, all of that, just the history of everything has fascinated me, but my biggest thing is I want people to understand that when there are hostilities between nations there’s always two sides.
When you only get one side of the story, you’re pretty much brainwashed to the facts of the whole situation. So I think that we do have a great country, but there’s a lot of things that we’re not so great at. Unfortunately, education is one of them.
MJ: I’m sure you’ve heard worse, especially about your DUI and the death of Mario Reyes. How did the accident change you?
DS: I think whenever you go through something of that nature, you get to see who’s really on your side and who’s really there for you. That happened in my case. And it really let me understand that no matter how small of a decision you make, it’s going to have a subsequent action or reaction, and something that started out very innocent turned into the tragedy that it was. I have a lot of guys I know that are in the NBA, MLB, even other entertainers came up to me and told me that my situation had really made an impact on them.
Especially for the people that knew me. They just saw how everything could change within a matter of seconds. I think most importantly it made me aware of every little decision that I make. Something that can start off innocent can end the way mine did, and obviously it was good for no one.
MJ: As fans, we just assume that professional athletes can hire drivers or take the team up on hired drivers. Can you speak to that?
DS: It’s a good question. I’m not really sure. I know there a lot of responsible guys. I’ve been on many teams and there are a lot of guys that know that after the game is when guys usually go out that night, Sunday night, and there’s a lot of guys that are very responsible that know they’re going to have drinks that night and they’ll rent a limo or a car. But then there’s some people that don’t do that, that maybe don’t plan on drinking when they get there and then have some drinks and things get out of hand.
That’s an issue and it shouldn’t be. It really shouldn’t be. I think I can hopefully have a positive effect on a lot of guys. I think it’s important for me to get out and talk to not only NFL players but people all over, man. I mean people take for granted so much. You have one or two drinks and you’re legally over the limit. Too many bad things can happen when you drive while intoxicated.
MJ: So what are you up to these days, now that you’re not playing pro ball? What’s the daily routine like?
DS: I get up in the morning and go train with my same trainer that I’ve been using for about four years now. Then I leave the gym, go home, shower, pick up some articles. A lot of articles that will come across my Twitter feed. Something’s always going on on Twitter and obviously throughout the whole world. I pick about four or five articles that I’ll read. From there it’s pretty much open.
There’s a youth center out here, it’s called Overtown Youth Center. It’s Alonzo Mourning’s youth center, who’s a really good friend of mine. He’s like a big brother to me. I’ve been over there in the past and have been spending some time with the kids. It’s a neighborhood where kids need to be interactive with some responsible adults, and give them something to do after school.
I always hear people saying, “If I can just help one person, or if I can just stop one person from doing what I did.” I don’t think one person is enough. I feel you can help more than one person, help as many as you can. That’s something that I would like to leave as my legacy: That I helped a lot of people and made some people make better decisions after looking at the decisions I’ve made in my life.
MJ: So are you ready to hang it up?
DS: If I do not play another down, in my 10 years I’ve been blessed to pretty much come out virtually unscathed of any major injuries, so I think I would be content with that. To me probably the biggest disappointments, as far as a football career goes, is I feel like I didn’t live up to my potential, and I didn’t win a Super Bowl ring. I came very, very close in 2008, losing to the Giants when I was with the Patriots.
I’m not going to be the guy to be 36, 37 years old still trying to hang on and play in the NFL. I’ll be 33 in a couple weeks, and there’s a million things I want to do with my life before my time is up, which is hopefully 40, 50 years down the line from now at least. So I’d definitely be content. If I never played another down I’d be content with that and pursue some more of my passions.