NFL routine is a crime of its own

February 02, 2000|By John Eisenberg

Maybe you're surprised at the severity of the crime, or that one of the Ravens' best and most popular players was involved.

But if you're really surprised by the news that Ray Lewis has been charged in a double murder, your head has been in the sand for a long time.

This is the National Felony League, er, the National Football League, where player-related crimes and off-field violence have become as routine as touchdowns and tackles.

Sports pages are full of it, fans are sick of it, front offices are terrified of it and there's no end in sight.

Surprised by the news? Please. More than a dozen players in last Sunday's Super Bowl had rap sheets. Last month, the Panthers' Rae Carruth became the first active player indicted on a murder charge. Not a week goes by without some player somewhere getting in trouble.

Sure, Lewis was a charismatic team leader who symbolized excellence, so it's obviously a stunner on a gut level. A double-murder charge? Amazing.

But no crime is a stretch anymore given the level of violence that has become accepted in the NFL, a league grossly out of touch with reality.

The league keeps insisting there's no problem, which would almost be comical if people weren't dying. The reality is that every team has at least a few time bombs in the locker room now. Every team wakes up every morning just praying one of its time bombs didn't go off overnight.

The Ravens aren't exceptions. They aren't morally superior or inferior to the rest of the league. They're just one of the gang, and they got unlucky, that's all. They experienced what every team dreads. They woke up and one of their time bombs had gone off.

That sound you hear is the 30 other NFL teams sighing with relief and saying, "Thank goodness it wasn't one of our guys."

Another bullet dodged, no pun intended.

Not that the other teams can relax with the next major crime right around the corner.

Lewis hasn't been found guilty yet, of course, so let's not rush to judgment. A preliminary hearing was postponed yesterday to allow prosecutors more time to gather information and possibly charge others. All we know is there was a limo with a lot of people in it, shots fired, fatal stabbing wounds inflicted. Who knows where the case might end up going? Maybe Lewis will be spared.

But police don't just casually toss murder charges around, and they already have seen and heard enough to charge Lewis and hold him without bond. That's a bad sign. You don't put a guy in leg irons and hold him without bond for almost a month just to get more information out of him.

At the very least, Lewis is in a ton of trouble, his brilliant career in jeopardy, his bright future growing darker by the minute.

All apparently because someone got mad at someone at a Super Bowl party.

Great.

What might cause Lewis to snap in such a benign situation and risk his many gains? Everyone blames the money, the mind-bending riches now routinely showered on young athletes from troubled backgrounds. Lewis, who grew up amid violence and signed a $26million contract last year, would seem to be a classic case.

But blaming the money is too easy, a sweeping generalization rooted in pop sociology. Many athletes from troubled backgrounds have handled the big money just fine.

A larger problem is the adulation, the elevated status, the sense of entitlement star athletes develop as they hurtle through feeder systems being coddled and trumpeted and having others clean up their messes.

They start believing that they're above the law, that they can do no wrong, that someone will save them if they slip. And too many in the media cooperate, glossing over the indiscretions and focusing only on the cheers.

The players' egos rage out of control, enabled by many along the way.

That's why the Ravens were increasingly concerned about Lewis, who was investigated twice for assault in college and had recently hired bodyguards, faced another assault charge last fall and cultivated a new set of "friends." He was in love with the stage, the adulation -- hooked on being the biggest and baddest around.

That's what landed him in the wrong place at the wrong time, coming out of a Super Bowl party at 4 a.m., playing the role of the Pro Bowler, living large with a limo and an entourage.

What happened next is unclear, but Lewis was there, and now he's wearing a jail suit, in deeper trouble than he ever imagined.

It's sad for the two men who died; sad for the Ravens, who invested in Lewis; sad for Baltimore's fans, who trusted him; and sad for Lewis, who had so much going for him.

But what's saddest of all, in a way, is that an NFL star has been charged with a terrible crime, and football fans across the country are just shrugging and saying, "Tell me something new."

NFL blotter

Some other incidents involving NFL players during the past season:

* Dolphins running back Cecil Collins was arrested in connection with a break-in at a neighbor's apartment. The married woman living there said Collins had been stalking her.

* Bills defensive tackle Marcus Spriggs and wide receiver Jeremy McDaniel were charged in the sexual assault of two off-duty police officers in a nightclub.

* Broncos safety Darrius Johnson was charged with punching a topless dancer.

* Colts defensive back Steve Muhammad was charged with battery in the beating of his pregnant wife. He was cleared in her death, which was attributed to injuries suffered in an auto accident.

* Jets offensive tackle Jumbo Elliott was charged with assault after being accused of punching a man and a woman in a bar. Matt O'Dwyer, a Jets teammate then and now with the Bengals, was arrested in the same incident and is being sued by three police officers who claim he kicked out a window in their car, sending shattered glass into their eyes.

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