The release of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis yesterday on bail raises a question the NFL hasn't faced in modern times: Should a man indicted for murder be allowed to take the field?
The team and league say they haven't decided whether he will play, and don't need to yet because the season is a long way off. Several NFL sources, however, say the league is unlikely to allow Lewis to appear in uniform until the matter is settled and may put him on a leave if he is still the focus of the case when training camp begins.
In the meantime, they are hoping information comes out in the ensuing weeks that will clarify the situation.
"We'll have to address it when we address it, but for the time being Ray Lewis is an innocent man," said Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne.
Lewis was released on $1 million bond by a Georgia judge who decided he was unlikely to flee or to harm anyone while free. He is charged, along with a pair of convicted felons, of being an "active participant" in a early-morning melee in which two men were killed outside an Atlanta nightclub after the Super Bowl.
Under Georgia's speedy-trial law, Lewis has the right to demand his case be under way by April 28. His attorneys have until the end of this month to exercise that right, but if they don't, the trial might not start for six months.
The team's minicamp convenes in late April and full-blown training camp in July.
An off-season conditioning program for players begins March 7. Lewis, who usually works out with a personal trainer in Florida, will be barred from that by the conditions of his bail that prohibit travel outside Maryland and Georgia. Byrne said he would likely be allowed to exercise with his teammates in Maryland.
"Based on the presumption of innocence, Ray has a right to get on with his life," Byrne said.
In New York, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said commissioner Paul Tagliabue had not addressed the Lewis issue. "There isn't an urgent reason to address it yet," Aiello said. "As we get closer to team events such as training camp and minicamps, he may."
The terms of Lewis' release would seem to hinder his ability to play: He can only leave Maryland to attend to court matters in Georgia and has to be home by 9 each night. But a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta said such provisions are frequently waived by a judge to accommodate a defendant's lawful occupation.
"That's done all the time. You're not going to ruin a guy's livelihood," said Jerome J. Froelich Jr., a former federal and state prosecutor with McKenney & Froelich.
The judge could, for example, allow Lewis to fly to games with a chaperon, he said.
"I think the judge would allow him to travel with the team. Clearly, she is not impressed with the prosecution's case," Froelich said.
That assumes the league would allow Lewis to play. Under the "morals" clause of the NFL's basic player contract, a club can fire a player if he "has engaged in personal conduct reasonably judged by club to adversely affect or reflect on club."
The NFL, too, can suspend, fine or fire a player found to have engaged in "conduct reasonably judged by the league commissioner to be detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football."
In both cases, a player would have a right to appeal the decision to an arbitrator, but great authority is given to the league to police itself, said Martin J. Greenberg, a Milwaukee-based sports attorney and former director of the National Sports Law Institute.
"Under the NFL system, Tagliabue has the right to determine that Lewis engaged in conduct detrimental to the game and suspend him," Greenberg said.
Tagliabue doesn't have to wait for a jury's verdict, either. The NFL may have sufficient grounds to suspend him if it can be proved Lewis was associating with felons armed with knives outside a bar during which a fight broke out, Greenberg said.
"It doesn't have to be criminal conduct," he said.
Jay Moyer, the retired chief counsel of the NFL, said crimes by players have traditionally been handled on a case-by-case basis.
"Often the decision would be reached jointly with the player that his time would be best spent defending himself of the charges" and would be given leave, Moyer said.
At least two other active NFL players have been charged with murder, but their playing eligibility was not an issue.
A Pittsburgh Steeler named Jerry Nuzum was charged in April 1951 with murdering a cocktail waitress. He was acquitted the next June and, because players had no off-season obligations then, didn't miss any team functions.
More recently, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth was charged in a Nov. 16 drive-by shooting of a woman pregnant with his child. The baby was delivered by Caesarean section.
The woman survived for nearly a month after the shooting, during which time Carruth was released on $3 million bond. The NFL placed him on a paid leave, and changed it to an unpaid leave a few weeks later as authorities uncovered details of the crime.