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.
Now, sports leagues test for steroids and illegal drugs and have continually toughened those tests in the wake of public scorn. The federal government has gotten involved in high-profile crimes it once ignored, such as steroids and dogfighting. Thus baseball's home run king, Barry Bonds, is facing perjury charges and former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is serving a 23-month prison sentence for dogfighting.
And as scrutiny of sports stars increased, so did the realization that bad advice could be devastating, as evidenced by Vick's early refusal to cut a deal in the dogfighting investigation.
Cornwell also believes that players with ever-increasing salaries have been tagged with what he likes to call a "bull's-eye."
"Certainly from the street punks to the hustlers there's a cottage industry growing in America that the substance of which is taking a shot at an athlete to get some money," Cornwell said. "And they need someone to step in and protect their interests."
Or as football agent Eugene Parker, who has sent players to Cornwell, said: "It used to be people would look at the athlete as the hero. Now they look at the athlete as an opportunity for them to hit the lottery."
When the NFL player received a letter notifying him of his diluted drug test, he said he grew terrified. But Cornwell, who many years ago as a young lawyer in the NFL offices helped to write the league's drug policy, began to investigate.
He talked to the trainer for the player's team and discovered the player had been identified as being at risk for dehydration while on the field -- an important league issue after Minnesota Vikings player Korey Stringer died of complications of heatstroke in 2001. To further guard against such deaths, teams are required to put at-risk players in hydration programs, meaning they are given regular doses of extra fluids.
In the hearing, Cornwell argued to the NFL that a double standard existed in which teams were forcing players to take more fluids, then punishing them for drug tests that revealed a high level of fluids had diluted their urine. How did the league know if the player's diluted drug test was a result of masking agents or the NFL's own hydration program?
In its hearing with Cornwell and the player, the league could not answer that question, and as a result settled.
Recently, Cornwell had a player call in a panic, sure a publication was about to write a story that he believed to be inaccurate and would destroy his reputation. He wanted the attorney to call the publication and threaten to sue for defamation if the story was published.
"That's not the kind of lawyer I am," Cornwell said, recounting the anecdote. "I'm looking for clients who need advice."
He turned the conversation to Roger Clemens, the former pitcher whose reputation was damaged when the Mitchell report alleged he used steroids. In vehemently fighting his inclusion in the report, Clemens, who is not a Cornwell client, kept the story alive and opened the door to suggestions he might have had an affair with an underage girl and possibly lied in testimony before Congress.
"With respect to anything in the Mitchell report, the story is dead," Cornwell said. "Except for him. You have to assume Roger's objective was to make this go away with as little pain as possible. Now he's the one suffering the most. I say this all the time: The hardest negotiations are the ones you have with your own clients."
As for the ballplayer who was terrified a story was about to ruin his reputation? Cornwell determined the publication needed the athlete's involvement to have a story. If the player didn't respond to the calls, Cornwell said, there was nothing the publication could do. So the athlete refused to cooperate.
So far, the piece has not run.'It's About Control'
Those who have worked with Cornwell describe a young lawyer who is able to sift through situations and find ways out of seemingly hopeless predicaments, one who is also masterful at using people's words against them.
But while his sometimes combative personality endears him to many clients, it leaves others rumbling about his aggressiveness, sometimes wondering if he goes too far.
"He's a fine lawyer who will go outside the lines, but I guess that's a good thing if you are on his side," said Brian Watkins, the attorney for sports marketer Lloyd Lake in a lawsuit against New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush, whom Cornwell is helping to represent.
In a recent arbitration dispute between a major league pitcher and a sports memorabilia company, the company's attorney tried to submit a handwritten statement from a witness who had not shown up to the hearing. When Cornwell protested that the paper was useless, the arbitrator agreed. Cornwell then reached across the table, snatching the document, crumpling it and throwing it away.
Cornwell seems to see himself as something like the athletes he represents. Growing up as the child of a surgeon and teacher in Northwest Washington, he clung to the dream of becoming a professional basketball player all the way through high school at Sidwell Friends and college at Tufts, where he was a point guard. At Georgetown, where he went to law school, he sometimes practiced against the basketball team and briefly played professionally for an obscure Egyptian club team while attending school in Cairo.
He often says there were only two things he could be in life: a point guard or a lawyer.
For a few years, while working as an attorney in the office of the most powerful NFL agent at the time, Leigh Steinberg, Cornwell thought he might want to be an agent. Eventually he moved on to the NFL's offices. From there he went to the sports memorabilia company Upper Deck, serving as the company's counsel until a fallout with management landed him back with Steinberg just as Steinberg's firm was breaking up.
A few years later, he was ready to move out on his own as a sports attorney. He did mostly legal work for agents until players' cases started to trickle in. Most were for positive drug tests or performance-enhancement tests. And because Cornwell understood the NFL's drug policy, he was a natural to defend against it.
Soon his name started popping up in stories about athletes who had found themselves in trouble, such as Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams and former Maryland star Shawne Merriman. Often, he tells them to settle rather than fight.
Which makes it ironic that as he takes on what might be his highest-profile case yet -- the plight of Bush, who has been sued for $291,000 by Lake, a San Diego sports marketer who claims Bush and his family took money from him -- Cornwell is fighting. Already, he has spent hours attacking the credibility of Lake, even going as far as to bring an armed security guard to depositions, claiming Lake has threatened Bush. He said he has "ceded the court of public opinion" to Bush's accusers and added that he is not concerned with the potential of NCAA violations that might force Bush to return his Heisman Trophy. He said he is simply trying to win a lawsuit.
But why fight over $291,000? Bush, with his rookie contract and countless endorsement deals, is worth tens of millions. It would seem he could settle with Lake without even making a dent in his fortune.
Cornwell said a previous suit brought by one of Lake's former associates was for more than $3 million and he has seen athletes settle in similar cases, only to have the people they settled with come after them for still more money.
"I'm not smart enough to play in a game where there are no rules," he said. "It's about control. It's about using your tools to bring about the desired result. Getting into an amorphous environment where there are no rules? That's the wrong environment for me."
Then a few minutes later, he added: "Very often it's a bull's-eye issue. And very often in these issues or transactions I take the bull's-eye off of the [client] and put it on myself and say, 'Now you've got a problem.' "A Lawyer and a Player
One of Cornwell's mentors, Jeff Moorad, the chief executive of the Arizona Diamondbacks who worked with Cornwell in Steinberg's office, sounded discouraged when he received a call asking about Cornwell's representation of troubled athletes.
"I think David offers a lot more," he said. "David has a deep wealth of experience in sports business, whether it's on the management side or the players' side. I can assure you of this: If I'm running a football team, David would be one of our number one hires. And it would not be as our general counsel. It would be on the business side in some function."
Cornwell admits that the idea appeals to him. Maybe someday it will be time to move on to something else, though that may be hard to do now that he has the ever-growing market of players' problems mostly to himself. Every week seems to bring new challenges and new troubles, more examples that work like his must still be needed.
"My thought is if David had Barry Bonds from the beginning, [Bonds] would not be where he is now," said Franklin "Brock" Gowdy, a San Francisco lawyer who worked with Cornwell as they fought to save Steinberg's agency several years ago. "There are a lot of good lawyers out there who don't understand the sports world. And there are a lot of people who understand sports but aren't great lawyers.