Surrounded by trouble

Violence: Entangled in entourages, Ray Lewis and other young stars find running with the crowd takes them in dangerous directions.

February 04, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was traveling with a large group of friends and "bodyguards" when violence erupted at an Atlanta nightspot last weekend and -- very likely -- changed his life forever.

Teammates insist that he could not have been responsible for the stabbing deaths of two men outside the Cobalt Lounge, though he stands accused of both killings. His lawyer says he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. There appears to be little doubt, however, that the crimes were carried out by someone in the Lewis entourage who attended an after-hours Super Bowl party at the club early Monday morning.

When you're young, famous and fabulously wealthy, you tend to draw a crowd.

Sometimes the wrong crowd.

Lewis isn't the first high-profile professional athlete to find himself at the center of a violent incident involving a questionable circle of friends, though the double homicide in Atlanta may be the most dramatic example of entourage violence involving a well-known sports star.

Carolina Panthers receiver Rae Carruth also is in jail on murder charges along with three acquaintances who allegedly killed his pregnant girlfriend in a drive-by shooting.

Less serious peer-group incidents have tarnished the reputations of several other professional athletes, including Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson, who was arrested with two friends in 1997 for alleged possession of marijuana and carrying a concealed weapon. Since then, the team has assigned professional security personnel to watch over Iverson when he is in public, but his judgment came into question again months later when those bodyguards whisked him out of a nightclub where a fatal shooting had taken place.

The recent surge of violence involving professional athletes appears to mirror a similar, more-pronounced epidemic in the music industry, where rap stars Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. have been gunned down, in part because they tried to live the violent, macho lifestyle that is glorified in the rap genre.

Lewis apparently was doing the same. Three knives were found in the limousine when it was searched by Atlanta police. The stabbings, according to the Atlanta medical examiner, were performed by someone who knew how to kill with a knife.

If it wasn't Lewis -- and the limo driver reportedly told police that it was not -- then he was, at the very least, guilty of hanging around with some very bad people.

Where do they come from?

It's not a difficult question. Lewis is one of the NFL's top young defensive stars. He recently signed a four-year contract worth $26 million that included a $7 million signing bonus. He is part of a new generation of millionaire athletes who seem to have it all, except the maturity and good judgment to know what to do with it.

Suddenly rich

The acceleration of sports salaries is making tycoons of young men -- many of them from low-income backgrounds -- who are barely out of their teens. And all that money draws friends the way a bright light draws insects.

"It puts an elite athlete in a difficult situation," said Dan Gould, professor of sports psychology at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. "Do you want to know me because I'm a great guy or because I'm rich and famous? When you're a professional athlete, everybody wants to be your friend, and it's really hard sometimes to tell which ones really care about you and are really friends.

"They need to surround themselves with people they can really trust, and I'm not talking about a friend who's telling them, `Let's go get some drugs.' They've got to be extra careful at a time when you're not conditioned to be extra careful. That's why when you're 17 years old, your car insurance rates are higher."

The situation is particularly pronounced in the NFL and NBA, where players can hit the jackpot right out of high school or college.

"It's not just the money," said Steve Danish of The Life Skills Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. "It's what these players stand for. When you don't have a lot of role models, you look for people who are successful. The money is important, but it's also the notoriety."

The sports entourage is not a new phenomenon. High-profile professional boxers have long surrounded themselves with large groups of handlers -- some of them legitimate members of the fighter's training staff and others simply along for a taste of the high life.

Longtime middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson surrounded himself with a huge entourage in the 1950s. Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali always traveled and trained with a large contingent that included handlers, bodyguards and even his religious advisers.

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