A 'Cleaner' of Athletes' Dirty Laundry

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Inside a hearing room at the NFL's New York offices, one of the league's prominent players sat at a table, looked at all the lawyers and wondered if he was facing the end of his career.

A few weeks before, the results of a drug test he had taken showed his urine had been diluted. Normally, this is a sign that the player is trying to hide the presence of drugs or steroids in his system. And because this player already was in the league's substance-abuse program, the diluted specimen was treated as a failed test. He faced a certain four-game suspension, perhaps a release from his team and the possibility of never getting a decent contract from any team that might pick him up.

Worst of all, he insisted he was innocent. He said he hadn't taken drugs or used a masking agent, an argument that didn't seem to have much of a chance in the room filled with lawyers.

Then the man next to him, the attorney he had hired on the advice of his agent, spoke. And as David Cornwell talked, his voice rising, occasionally cursing, the player -- who asked that his name not be used because of the nature of the accusations against him -- relaxed, awed by the man's ferocity. He watched the body language of the league's lawyers, noticing them grow tense.

After about an hour, a league lawyer asked Cornwell for a meeting outside. A few minutes later, Cornwell grabbed the player and presented an offer: accept a fine and the suspension would go away. He also would be released from the program. Nobody outside the room and the player's team ever would know about the test. It would be as if it never had happened.

Cornwell, the player recalled, "kicked ass."

"We didn't even get to the meat of the discussion before the opposition kind of backed down."

Which is why dozens of athletes have paid Cornwell a lot of money these last few years. He has a way of making their problems disappear. It is a job he seems to relish, so much so that he chuckles as he draws a correlation between his work and that of Winston Wolfe, the character played by Harvey Keitel in the movie "Pulp Fiction." A "cleaner" who has a knack for making ugly crime scenes vanish.

It is not a new profession. There have been cleaners in entertainment, politics and business for years. And athletes always have had problems that needed resolving. But in the last 10 years, with the influx of big money and the explosion of Web sites that post rumors of athletes' misdeeds by the minute, there has become a need for a David Cornwell.

"I think the sports industry is a little late in coming to realize this is a specialty and an expertise that is different from just public relations," said Michael Sitrick, a graduate of the University of Maryland who is considered to be one of the top crisis managers in Hollywood, having worked with Rush Limbaugh and Kim Basinger, among many others.

"It's hard to enrage people [over athletes' indiscretions] because sports fans have been more forgiving," he added. "Athletes have felt for a long time the traditional approach has served them well. But athletes are now making a lot more money and you need experience in handling their problems. You wouldn't go to a back surgeon for brain surgery. You need specialists who can come in and immediately solve problems."

Guarding the 'Bull's-Eye'

The sports world has changed in the last 25 years. First, the practice of reporting on arrests involving athletes became commonplace. Then came a few spectacular cases, such as Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend in 1999.

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