With Lewis, no one free to cast 1st stone

February 06, 2000|By JOHN EISENBERG

A star linebacker ends up in jail on a double-murder charge. A team and a city wrestle with the fallout. And everyone deserves some blame.

The Ravens. The fans. The media. Like it or not, we all share in the evolution of the Ray Lewis affair.

Lewis himself is most at fault, of course. Regardless of his guilt or innocence, and no matter where his legal case goes from here, he was the one who made the mistake of keeping dubious company far from home at 4 a.m. He was the one in the wrong place at the wrong time, employing regrettable judgment.

But when you trace the path that took him there, to the doorstep of trouble, you see other parties involved.

The Ravens, for instance. They were worried about Lewis before any of this happened. They knew he was running with a tough crowd and had cultivated an entourage and been accused of assault last fall. Did they tell him to tone down his act before something really bad happened? Team officials say they were planning to speak to him after the Pro Bowl.

Why didn't they get involved sooner, when the warning signs flashed? A valid question. They probably figured nothing too bad would happen and they could handle it later. They also probably didn't want to discipline their best player during the season.

Maybe they didn't want to compromise Lewis' lifestyle, given how it manifested itself on the field, with dominating, violent play.

True, there was only so much the Ravens could hope to do. Pro football players are well-paid adults living in a free country. Teams can only control them so much, especially at night.

But you'd think the Ravens would do all they could to protect one of their most valuable assets, an All-Pro signed to a $26 million contract. Just sit him down and set some guidelines. Make the point. Who is signing the checks, anyway?

By not telling Lewis they disapproved of some of his decision-making, they offered tacit approval. And it cost them.

Of course, the whole world had given Lewis tacit approval in a sense, turning him into a celebrity even though his background included assault investigations and children fathered out of wedlock.

You can see how he'd come to think he was above the law, incapable of having to pay for mistakes off the field. He'd always outrun them before. He was a football star, one of the chosen few, coddled since high school, a focus of blinding adulation in spite of it all.

He was even a role model, a hero to thousands, a familiar face cheered and supported as if he were family. Except, of course, that few in the public knew anything about him away from the field or the locker room.

He was a role model no one knew.

Why do we let ourselves -- particularly our children -- look up to people we don't know? It doesn't make sense. But it happens. Every day. A million times.

We're alive in the age of celebrity, a time when being famous is what matters, even more than winning or being rich. And athletes are prime celebrities, right up there on stage with movie stars and rock singers.

The public gets to watch them, emulate them, try to get their autographs, touch them and be with them.

The athlete gets to bask in the swirl of the ultimate currency -- fame.

It was that swirl that led Lewis to Atlanta last week, toting an entourage in a limo, basking in his stardom. How could he not think he'd outrun any trouble? How could he not believe he could live on the edge, maybe even fall off, and still be fine?

Maybe it's time to start admiring the people we know, instead of those we don't.

Of course, there are reasons Lewis was so admired in spite of a history that, in some ways, was less than admirable. The Sun never reported that he was twice accused of assault in college, even though the Miami Herald reported it. Nor was Lewis' paternity history put under a microscope for long.

The focus was always on football, on the good things he did on the field. The bad things off the field, well, the public didn't know enough about them to weigh them. That was our fault.

But do fans even want the bad news? Many don't. That's not what they want from sports. They want an escape from the real world, a chance to forget about bills and pressures. They want a piece of excellence they can relate to, a forum for finding common ground with others, an excuse for cutting loose and forging memories.

The rest of life is tough enough. Why ruin the fun part?

Alas, the "fun part" is real, too. And out of that world came Ray Lewis last Sunday night, hurtling toward trouble while thinking he was immune from it, a dangerous combination. His own poor choices took him there. But in a way, with our own choices, we all offered him a helping hand along the way.

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