Cut Lewis? Ravens block idea for now

February 12, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Paragraph 11 of a standard NFL player contract states that if a "player has engaged in personal conduct reasonably judged by club to adversely affect or reflect on club, then club may terminate this contract."

Well, one could reasonably judge that Ray Lewis has engaged in personal conduct detrimental to the Ravens, even if he is cleared of murder charges in the stabbing deaths of two men.

Lewis associated with convicted felons who are dangers to the community. Ravens scouting director Phil Savage told Sports Illustrated that the team might need to increase security at its Owings Mills practice facility and PSINet Stadium if the three-time Pro Bowl linebacker returns.

Should the Ravens release Lewis?

A non-football fan might find comfort in that outcome.

But will the Ravens release Lewis?

Not a chance.

"This is the United States of America," team president David Modell said yesterday. "There is a judicial system, and it's there for a reason. By and large, it seems to work pretty well. On that basis, I think it's fair for us to take that moral position."

Especially when it worked for the franchise once before.

Five years ago, Bennie Thompson was a prime suspect in the murders of his 3-year-old son and ex-wife. Thompson was then with the Cleveland Browns, who became the Ravens. He was backed by owner Art Modell, and eventually cleared.

The difference is that Thompson was never charged with murder. But his predicament certainly was comparable to Lewis', and Modell's response demonstrated the franchise's willingness to offer role players the same support as it does to stars.

Release Lewis?

This is not a time for easy answers.

As a citizen, Lewis is innocent until proven guilty. But as an employee, he can be dismissed if he violates the terms of his work agreement, and he certainly would appear to be in violation of Paragraph 11.

Still, the issue is not as simple as finding dissatisfaction with a player's conduct -- not when the player is awaiting a bond hearing in Atlanta on Monday and a jury trial after that.

"Any action that I take in any way, shape or form as owner of the Baltimore Ravens would be prejudicial to his chance for a fair trial," Art Modell said.

The elder Modell said he discussed the Lewis case yesterday with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Modell said he would fly to Atlanta for Monday's bond hearing, and called a judge's decision to go forward with the hearing "somewhat encouraging" for Lewis and the Ravens.

But even if Lewis is released on bail, he could face immediate suspension from the NFL, Modell said. He then would be unable to participate in off-season workouts at the Ravens' Owings Mills facility and any other team activities until his case was resolved.

The NFL collective-bargaining agreement says that players are subject to discipline by the commissioner for "conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football."

However, wide receiver Rae Carruth was waived by the Carolina Panthers and suspended indefinitely by the league on Dec. 16 because he didn't turn himself into police, not because he was charged with first-degree murder.

Modell said it would "behoove" the league to withhold judgment until after a trial if Lewis is released on bail.

But he acknowledged that Tagliabue might need to take action against Lewis if the trial extended into the season.

For now, the Ravens are like almost everyone else, observing from a distance as lawyers from both sides exchange charges and counter-charges through the media.

Fulton County district attorney Paul Howard appeared with five of the victims' family members yesterday as he announced the murder indictments of Lewis and two associates.

Moments later, lead defense attorney Ed Garland pronounced the indictments scandalous and compared Lewis to Richard Jewell, whom the FBI accused and then cleared in the 1996 Olympic bombing.

To the Ravens, all that seems to matter is whether Lewis is convicted or cleared. They do not seem bothered that Lewis' role in the double murder might be forever questioned, even if he is found not guilty.

"If he's cleared, he's cleared, and that's that," David Modell said.

But is it?

Savage seemed to suggest to SI that Lewis' return might subject his teammates to possible harm. And if teams can't expect players to be role models, they can at least expect them to steer clear of hardened criminals that threaten the safety of the community.

David Modell downplayed the risk of danger at the Ravens' training complex and stadium, saying, "Our security is excellent at all of our facilities. I'm not sure we would need to do anything, one way or the other."

As for Lewis' associations, it is not a crime to keep bad company. And if the NFL started cutting every player who ran with a questionable crowd, it might not be left with many players.

Should the Ravens release Lewis?

The answer is not as simple as it seems.

Nothing is when the NFL comes to town.

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