Charges jolt NFL, Ravens

Arrest of R. Lewis continues league's disturbing trend

Commentary

February 01, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

ATLANTA -- It is the Ravens' worst nightmare. It is every team's worst nightmare. It is every city's worst nightmare.

A local sports hero has been charged with murder.

Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis last night became the second NFL player to meet that fate in the past two months, and his case will be even more high-profile than Rae Carruth's, if that's imaginable.

Carruth was released by the Carolina Panthers after being charged in connection with the murder of his pregnant girlfriend. What the Ravens will do with Lewis now that he has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with a double homicide is anyone's guess.

Like any citizen, Lewis is entitled to due process. But the scrutiny of this crime and the pressure on the Ravens will be enormous. Lewis, 24, is one of several young players who embodies the team's hope for the future. But now he could become a symbol for all that is wrong with the NFL.

His alleged crime occurred not just hours after the Super Bowl, but in the Super Bowl city. Not just in the Super Bowl city, but in the upscale shopping and entertainment district of Buckhead, just before Lewis was set to depart for the Pro Bowl in Honolulu.

This is just what the NFL needs in the afterglow of one of its best Super Bowls -- the arrest of one of its best players for a crime that no active player had been ever charged with until Carruth's capture, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

At the very least, Lewis appears guilty of poor judgment. Less than two months ago, he was charged with assaulting a woman at a Baltimore County restaurant/bar. That incident should have served as a wake-up call. But Sunday night, he allegedly got into an altercation outside a bar at 4 a.m., and something went terribly wrong.

A street fight took place. Two residents of Decatur, Ga. -- Richard Lollar, 24, and Jacinta Baker, 21 -- were killed. Shots reportedly were fired from a black Lincoln Navigator limousine leased by Lewis, but preliminary indications were that the victims were stabbed to death.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported today that Atlanta detectives and policemen identified Lewis as one of six men inside the limousine as it sped away from the crime scene.

Lewis is innocent until proven guilty, not just of this crime, but also of the alleged assault in Baltimore County. Still, who is he? What kind of crowd is he running with? Why would he risk his wealth and fame at any level?

These are the questions the Ravens need to start asking, if they hadn't been already. Lewis' associations began raising concerns among his teammates this season. Young, wealthy NFL stars attract all kinds, and they are warned repeatedly to avoid putting themselves in compromising positions.

The Ravens gave Lewis a four-year, $26 million contract with a $7 million signing bonus when he was 23. It was the correct decision from a football standpoint. But who knows? Maybe it was too much, too soon.

Art Modell is notoriously forgiving, but unless Lewis is another Richard Jewell -- wrongly identified by Atlanta police as a suspect in the fatal bombing in Centennial Olympic Park -- the owner will face a decision unlike any he has made.

To think, Lewis always has represented everything that was right with the Ravens. He was one of their two first-round draft picks in their inaugural season, their leading tackler almost from the moment he joined the team, an undersized linebacker who made it big.

Lewis plays with unmatched passion, breathtaking speed and terrific strength. He is the emotional leader of the defense, the kind of player who inspires fathers to say to their sons, "That is how you play the game."

And now this.

The double murder was the lead story in yesterday's Atlanta Journal Constitution, under the headline, "Two slain in Buckhead brawl. Killings shatter night of Super Bowl parties; police hunt suspects." Local television stations reported early last night that police were questioning Lewis. Shortly after 11 p.m., they reported his arrest.

Maybe now the NFL will be forced to admit that its players are more prone to violence than average citizens. As recently as last Friday, commissioner Paul Tagliabue was in denial, claiming that the NFL's problems were no greater than society's as a whole.

"We need to recognize first that the track record of our players is far better than society at-large," Tagliabue said in his annual Super Bowl news conference. "We have fewer incidents involving NFL players than society at-large has. Any number of studies have shown that very clearly."

Tagliabue added, "When you look at the totality of 2,500 players a year in the league, the overwhelming number of them are solid citizens, and a very large number of them are extraordinary citizens."

But a book published last year, "Pros and Cons: The Criminals who play in the NFL," reported that 21 percent of NFL players had been charged with "serious crimes," ranging from domestic abuse to murder.

And the trend certainly doesn't appear to be diminishing.

The shocking crime that led to Carruth's arrest made national headlines. And the day after Carruth was found hiding in the trunk of a car, Miami rookie running back Cecil Collins was charged with burglary.

Tennessee cornerback Denard Walker -- the player beaten by Isaac Bruce for the winning touchdown catch in Super Bowl XXXIV -- is on probation after being charged last summer with assaulting a former girlfriend.

And let's not forget St. Louis linebacker Leonard Little, who pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter last summer after killing a woman as a drunken driver. Little, sentenced to 90 nights in jail, 1,000 hours of community service and four years' probation, played in the Super Bowl.

Awful as it might be, such news never seems as jolting when it concerns another player on another team. But now Ray Lewis has been charged with murder. Ray Lewis, a player everyone in Baltimore adored.

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