Ravens face tough call with Lewis

February 03, 2000|By John Eisenberg

What are the Ravens going to do with Ray Lewis? What's the right way to deal with a star middle linebacker facing a double-murder charge?

For now, they don't have to do anything. They can stand back and watch Lewis' legal case unfold before making any decisions.

But they're deluding themselves if they think they can get to the end of this dreadful situation without having to make a wrenching call about a cornerstone player who signed a $26 million contract last year.

The Carolina Panthers set quite a precedent last month when one of their players, Rae Carruth, became the first active NFL player to be indicted for murder and subsequently went into hiding. The Panthers cut Carruth on the spot.

That would be a mistake in this case, and not just because Lewis is more important to the Ravens than Carruth was to the Panthers.

To begin with, Lewis deserves his day in court, as does anyone accused of a crime. Carruth didn't get his day before the Panthers jettisoned him, which might seem appropriate given the appalling nature of his alleged crime -- murdering his pregnant girlfriend in a drive-by shooting -- but wasn't totally fair.

There also is something about Lewis' case that, at least at this point, shouts out for more caution and deliberation.

Even though Lewis is being held without bond, his role in the double murder remains unclear. Police are still interviewing witnesses and gathering information, and other arrests could ensue. It's possible Lewis has been charged correctly, but also possible the charges against him could be reduced.

Regardless, the Ravens clearly shouldn't react in any way until the facts in the case and the extent of Lewis' culpability become clearer.

The Ravens seem to recognize this. When spokesman Kevin Byrne was asked if the team was contemplating releasing Lewis in the aftermath of the incident, he said, "Until due process of the law is completed, that will not be addressed."

But it's when that due process is completed that things could get dicey.

Let's face it, things don't look good, they look bad. At this point, there's little chance of Lewis getting a free ride out of jail. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the Ravens probably will have to deal with that.

If Lewis is found guilty, there's actually no decision to make. That's the worst-case scenario, but also the easiest for the Ravens as far as having to stand in judgment. They might be disposed to stick with Lewis longer than they would the last reserve on the kickoff team, but it's still a no-brainer if he's guilty. Bye-bye.

They'd also have an easy time if Atlanta police admitted a mistake and set Lewis free. That's the best-case scenario, if something of a fantasy at this point. Lewis would just return to the Ravens' fold and take back his starting job, relieved beyond words and knowing he would need to be smarter about where he hung out.

But those two scenarios are the extremes, and any other final reckoning would leave the Ravens on vaguer terrain, forced to weigh such combustible elements as fairness, morality and public opinion before deciding what to do. Tricky stuff, for sure. And the possibilities are almost limitless.

What if Lewis is released on bond and his case is delayed for months? Do they let him continue to practice with the team, as if nothing had changed and the incident hadn't occurred? Or do they suspend him pending the outcome of the case?

And what if he is found guilty of a lesser charge that still casts the team in a terrible light? Do you sign up for the negative comments and headlines you know are coming because you're paying the guy big money and he's such a swell player? Or do you cut him because, in the end, his presence as a convicted violent criminal offends too many fans?

There's no handbook, no timeworn way of doing such things, even though all NFL teams are dealing with more and more players committing violent crimes. The Rams stuck with Leonard Little, a reserve who drove drunk and killed a woman, and although their decency was debatable and some groups protested, there was little trouble. A general rule seems to be that a guy can come back and play as long he's not in jail. The fans sure don't seem to care.

Again, the Ravens don't have to make a move now. The fans seem to have adopted a fairly supportive, wait-and-see mode, hopeful it turns out Lewis was less responsible than currently suggested. There's no pressure on the Ravens to do anything.

But if developments send the story in a darker direction, things could get tricky. The Ravens want to support their guy, but they can't support a double murderer. That could be a fine line to walk in this case.

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