By Bill Rankin
ATLANTA — Distraught wide receiver Donté Stallworth called him from the back of a patrol car. Accused quarterback Ben Roethlisberger texted him in the predawn hours from a Georgia college town. More recently, baseball’s highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, sought his counsel.
When big-time athletes get into trouble off the field, they often turn to David Cornwell, who, from his office overlooking Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, has built a national practice as the go-to lawyer for superstars in the soup.
Cornwell, quoted last week throughout the national media, strongly criticized Major League Baseball for slapping the New York Yankees’ Rodriguez with an unprecedented 211-game suspension for his ties to a Florida anti-aging clinic accused of distributing performance-enhancing drugs. Cornwell will help lead Rodriguez’s appeal.
“No doubt it’s cool to see our case in the news and everything,” Cornwell said in an interview last week. “But that means both our successes and failures are headline news.”
Cornwell enjoyed enormous success last year when he convinced an arbitration panel to overturn a 50-game suspension against reigning National League MVP Ryan Braun for testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone. It marked the first time a player had successfully appealed such a suspension.
“He really looks after his clients,” said Atlanta criminal defense attorney Ed Garland, whom Cornwell brought in to defend Roethlisberger. “He can be an extremely forceful advocate and, obviously, he’s shown that more recently by taking on Major League Baseball.”
Cornwell, the fifth of six children, grew up in Washington, D.C., where his late father practiced as a general surgeon. His mother taught history in the public school system before becoming a real estate agent.
During his senior year at Tufts University, where he played guard on the basketball team, Cornwell studied abroad one semester at American University in Cairo. When a coach saw Cornwell wearing his Tufts’ basketball jersey, he asked him to practice with a local team. After a scrimmage, Cornwell was called over to talk to the team’s owner and negotiated his first contract for $40 a game.
This meant, Cornwell said with a sly grin, he had realized one of his dreams: “I was a professional basketball player.” Cornwell soon returned to Washington, obtained his law degree from Georgetown University and joined a law firm. It was during this time when he became friends with the daughter of prominent attorney and presidential adviser Vernon Jordan. Jordan would later recommend then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle hire Cornwell as the league’s assistant counsel.
Cornwell said he only knew Jordan socially, which is why he always tells law students: “That’s proof you are always interviewing.”
At the NFL, Cornwell was assigned the task of coordinating the league’s minority-hiring program and worked closely with a member of the league’s public relations office — Roger Goodell, now the NFL’s commissioner and whom Cornwell considers a close friend.
Cornwell’s work has been recognized for helping pave the way for the hiring of the NFL’s first black coaches in modern times, Art Shell and Dennis Green.
“What’s also incredibly rewarding is to go to league meetings now and see the number of minorities in all phases of the game, not just in coaching, not just in PR, but everywhere,” Cornwell said. “It wasn’t that way before.”
Cornwell later became general counsel of Upper Deck, where he negotiated licenses with various leagues, players and player associations at a time when the trading card company was bringing in $300 million in annual revenues. Among the players he negotiated deals with: Mickey Mantle, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana.
Eventually, Cornwell struck out on his own, opening a law office in Orange County, Calif. He began representing athletes facing disciplinary action for violating substance abuse or steroid policies. His success led the NFL Players Association to ask him to represent even more players.
In 2005, Cornwell moved to Atlanta and opened his own sports law firm. His list of high-profile clients had continued to grow. He represented running back Reggie Bush when he was investigated by the NCAA as well as Stallworth, the wide receiver who was sentenced to 30 days in jail for killing a pedestrian while driving drunk.
In March 2010, Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback, texted Cornwell the morning a 20-year-old student of Georgia College & State University accused Roethlisberger of sexually assaulting her at the Capital City Club in Milledgeville. Cornwell was already defending Roethlisberger who had been accused of assaulting another woman in Nevada in 2008.
Cornwell brought in Garland, the legendary attorney, to lead Roethlisberger’s defense. Weeks later, the district attorney declined to prosecute the case.
It was at this time when Cornwell realized, as a solo practitioner, he needed some help. Last May, he joined Gordon & Rees, a San Francisco-based law firm with more than 500 lawyers in 28 cities. It was no coincidence, he said, that the firm’s Atlanta office had a strong sports and entertainment law practice.
Cornwell joined the firm shortly after an arbitration panel overturned Braun’s 50-game suspension.
Cornwell challenged Braun’s 2011 drug test by arguing the collector, Dino Laurenzi Jr., did not follow proper procedure. Instead of taking a urine sample directly to a Federal Express office for shipment on the day it was collected, Laurenzi kept it in a container at his home overnight, violating the chain-of-custody protocol, Cornwell said.
Cornwell no longer represents Braun, who recently accepted a 65-game suspension for his own ties to the Biogenesis anti-aging lab. Cornwell said the suspension makes no difference as to what happened more than a year ago.
“I had a clear understanding once I met Ryan what our defenses were and we pursued them and were successful,” he said. “Subsequent events weren’t in our control or anticipated. I don’t think what’s happened with Biogenesis in anyway alters the legitimacy of the case we put on or the result.”
Cornwell came out swinging shortly after Rodriguez retained him during the Biogenesis investigation. In June, he strongly criticized MLB, accusing the league of paying Biogenesis director Tony Bosch and his associates for information.
“The conduct of Major League Baseball with the Tony Bosch investigation is despicable, unethical and potentially illegal,” Cornwell told USA Today. “… Paid-for evidence should never be in the same sentence. But their investigation is based on paid-for evidence.”
The accusations received a swift retort from MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred.
“At the conclusion of this investigation,” he said, “we hope that there will be a full airing of what we have learned about what Mr. Cornwell and his clients have done so that the public can decide who has behaved despicably, unethically and illegally.”
One of Cornwell’s clients, New York Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli, was among the dozen players last Monday who accepted a 50-game suspension without appealing the discipline.
Cornwell, a longtime Yankees’ fan, expressed confidence in Rodriguez’s appeal. “We believe in our defenses,” he said. “I believe in Alex Rodriguez the man.”
When defending an athlete, the No. 1 goal is to win the case, but it’s also important to win in the court of public opinion, Cornwell said. This will be a challenge for Rodriguez, who has been derided by fans and sports commentators.
“It’s the fanatic part of the term ‘fan’ that makes sports so successful and it’s the way I make a living and have enjoyed a very fruitful and blessed life,” Cornwell said. “So I don’t begrudge anybody that.
“But these players are still entitled to a vigorous defense. And if there’s any question as to how you think they should be represented, then take the celebrity name out of it and insert the name of your father, your brother, yourself or your son and determine what kind of representation you want them to have.”
©2013 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)
Visit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) at www.ajc.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):