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Some Broncos say race was issue in spitting incident

Published: Friday, Dec. 19 1997 12:00 a.m. MST

The Denver Broncos held a team meeting Thursday to air their differences about the Bill Romanowski spitting spat, then tried to present a united front.

But the incident still is an issue for Gene Washington, the NFL official who fined the linebacker $7,500 for spitting in the face of San Francisco receiver J.J. Stokes on Monday night.Bronco receivers Shannon Sharpe and Willie Green branded the league action as racist Wednesday because they believe it wasn't harsh enough on Romanwoski, who is white.

Washington fired back Thursday. "I'm disappointed to know my decision was viewed by some players as being a minor punishment and that it would have been more severe if a black player spit on a white player," said Washington, the NFL's director of football development, who is black.

"It kind of goes to the issue of my own integrity. It's obviously not true. I never even considered the fact Romanowski is white and J.J Stokes is black."

Bronco coach Mike Shanahan said he respects Sharpe and Green for expressing their views, even though they came down hard on Romanowski.

"I think they spoke their mind, and they spoke the truth," Shanahan said. "I think any time anybody speaks the truth, it's positive. They made it known Bill Romanowski is not (a racist). In fact, they were very supportive of Bill, even though they were not very happy with what was done."

Shanahan insisted the issue hasn't divided the team and said a teamwide discussion was healthy.

"When you talk about those things, it's very positive," he said. "If you sweep them under the rug, it could have repercussions in the future or, obviously, in the next couple days. There's always going to be distractions. That's part of this business. It's how you deal with those distractions from a team standpoint that determines how successful you'll be."

Sharpe and Green also insisted the controversy has not divided or damaged the team.

"This was never personal. `Romo' is my teammate," Sharpe said. "It's never been a racial issue (between teammates). I made it crystal clear that it wasn't a racial issue and that I didn't think Romo was a racist.

"As of this point, I have no more comment on this issue."

Added Green, "As far as I'm concerned, it's over with. I said what I had to say."

Bronco owner Pat Bowlen declined comment.

Washington, a former 49er receiver, agreed with Sharpe and Green that Romanowski isn't a racist. "I've known Bill for a number of years, and I'd be emphatic that this has nothing to do with race . . ."

But Anne Sulton, legal counsel for the Denver chapter of the NAACP, said Romanowski's actions could be perceived as racist.

"I think it's fair to say that to spit on someone who is black is the ultimate form of degradation," she said. "It's fairly close to a cross-burning, with the difference being that a cross-burning is a group act, where spitting is just an individual act."

Romanowski also came under fire from other NFL players. Asked what he'd say to Romanowski, Oakland Raiders cornerback Albert Lewis said, "I'd ask, `What were you thinking? Were you raised in a barn?' There's a code of conduct you don't cross. He crossed the line."

Romanowski appeared shaken by the developments of the past few days, which began when the 10-year NFL linebacker spit at Stokes during a heated argument in the third quarter of the Broncos' 34-17 loss to the 49ers.

"What I did was wrong, and I hold myself accountable for my actions," Romanowski said. "I have to live with it - I have to live with it the rest of my life," he said.

Romanwoski, who said he intends to write a letter of apology to Stokes, said he doesn't believe the NFL treated him differently because he's white.

"What they did I think was right," he said.

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