Save outrage: Morris merits 2nd chance

September 25, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

All right, so he got caught with a trunk full of dope.

What did you expect from the NFL, a 4-H club?

Sorry, it doesn't work that way in Mr. Tagliabue's Neighborhood.

Byron "Bam" Morris is no angel, but he deserves a second chance.

He's only 24.

He admits he made a mistake.

And he's not the only questionable character in a league where the reigning MVP is fighting painkilling and alcohol addictions and the two-time Super Bowl champions are moving to Sodom and Gomorrah.

This isn't to excuse Morris, the 245-pound running back who signed a two-year contract with the Ravens yesterday while still under suspension for violating the NFL's drug policy.

But hold the moral outrage.

The Ravens owe their entire existence to an amoral act -- the abandonment of a city where the NFL regularly drew crowds of 70,000. And, last time we checked, the league wasn't exactly full of former Boy Scouts.

No, Morris is no angel, not after getting caught with almost 6 pounds of marijuana and a small amount of cocaine. But some NFL team was going to give him a second chance, so why not the Ravens?

"Everyone makes mistakes," Morris said yesterday. "I made a mistake. I took my punishment. I'm ready to get on with the rest of my life."

What makes him different from Lawrence Phillips, the player the Ravens bypassed to draft Jonathan Ogden? Phillips pleaded no contest to assaulting his ex-girlfriend. Also, the Ravens believed Ogden was a better football player.

Selective morality is dangerous, but it's a fact of life in the NFL -- indeed, in all professional sports. You pick your spots, you cross your fingers. Sometimes, you get a Steve Howe. Other times, a Paul Molitor.

Few remember that Molitor overcame a cocaine problem near the outset of his Hall of Fame baseball career, but such turnarounds occur. This isn't to suggest Morris will be as successful as Molitor. But who's to say he won't?

Not Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, the Steelers' linebackers coach when Morris was in Pittsburgh. Lewis said he was "surprised" to learn of Morris' arrest in Rockwall, Texas, last March.

"I felt like he was somebody who would use better discretion, make better decisions," Lewis said. "Part of Bam's downfall is that sometimes he's too nice -- he has to learn to separate himself from certain individuals."

Morris was a state rushing leader at Cooper (Texas) High School, a first-team All-American at Texas Tech. But how prepared could he have been for the fast life of the NFL? How prepared is anyone?

"You know what young players go through in this league -- including myself, some of the pitfalls I had off the field," said Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome, a 13-year NFL veteran.

"You start to develop some type of confidence players will mature, go beyond some of the pitfalls. I've seen more guys succeed in overcoming it than guys who allow things off the field to take them out of this league."

Heck, the Steelers might have given Morris another shot, if not for their failures in rehabilitating other substance abusers -- one of whom was tight end Eric Green, the other player the Ravens signed yesterday.

It's not that the Steelers operate with higher standards. It's just that they felt comfortable releasing Morris after free agent Jerome Bettis impressed the coaching staff in minicamp.

Lewis said Morris gets "good direction" from his mother, Marie, who accompanied him yesterday. He also could benefit from the Inner Circle, the organization's self-help group for players with personal problems.

The only two players to admit membership in the group were Kevin Mack and Charles White, both of whom are now retired.

"I've seen these guys change their lives," Newsome said. "Second- and third-year players, they all have pitfalls. Maybe not to the point where they get arrested, but close."

Lewis agreed Morris is a worthy project.

"He's looking for direction," Lewis said. "When you get direction from the wrong people, you can get in trouble. He paid for it dearly. I'm sure it was a jolt to his system. I think it's woken him up to how good he had it.

"Most times when you're around bad people, you know they're not the way they ought to be, not good citizens. This guy is just a young guy who made a very bad mistake."

How bad? Well, Morris might have gone to jail if he wasn't an NFL player. After a plea bargain, he got off with probation, 200 hours of community service and a $7,000 fine.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue called him a "threat to public support of the league," but after a while such preaching amounts to so much hypocrisy.

Indeed, what greater threat to public support of the league is there than the franchise shifts that have occurred under Tagliabue's watch?

Hold the moral outrage.

This isn't a 4-H club.

This is the NFL.

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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