I WENT TO the Ray Lewis press conference last week just to ask how dumb a guy could be. But Lewis wasn't taking any questions, so we'll just have to guess. He issued a brief declaration of innocence and then ducked out of the room quickly, as though he remembered the meter was running on his limousine.
I sat between Nestor Aparicio, the radio sports talk guy, and Bruce Laird, the former Baltimore Colt. Aparicio said his phone lines are filled with people who think Lewis didn't hold the knife that killed two people in Atlanta. But they suspect maybe he could have picked friends with a less distinguished history of breaking the criminal laws.
Laird said he could identify. When he was still playing, if a fight broke out in a bar, his buddies always knew to hustle Laird out of the way. And nobody needed to pack a blade.
According to the Atlanta cops, Ray Lewis instead found himself in the middle of a bloodbath. At his press conference at Baltimore Ravens headquarters in Owings Mills, he declared his innocence and looked pretty composed. But, from up close, you could see a frenzy of nervous perspiration on his scalp.
"I am innocent," Lewis declared. "I am looking forward to the day when all the facts can come out."
The room was packed with reporters, who had to get past a security officer and sign in and sign out of the building, as if we were parolees or something. Nick Charles, the former Baltimore sportscaster who's now with CNN, was there. Nick's just an ordinary sports reporter. The beat's divided between covering the ballgames and checking the police blotters.
He came all the way from Atlanta just to hear Lewis' 75-second speech, and then he watched as Lewis bolted. The clock on the wall said it was 3: 18 in the afternoon. Maybe Lewis realized he only had five hours and 42 minutes to get home without violating the terms of his release on bond.
So this leaves us with that uncomfortable little question: Just how dumb is this guy, who risks his life, his career, his family, his millions, to hang out with these Neanderthals with sharp instruments?
"I can't begin to answer what his life is like," said Laird, who played defensive back for the Colts in the 1970s. "I'm just a middle-class white boy who didn't have it nearly as tough as Ray Lewis did and didn't reach pro ball surrounded by yo-boys with attitudes.
"When you're a professional athlete, and you go out in public, you've always got some guys who want to be hangers-on, and other guys looking to make things tough for you."
Laird's voice took on the tones of an obnoxious drunk at an imaginary bar.
" `You're a football player? You don't look so tough.' And then somebody's throwing a punch. But, you know, you've got your friends there, and my friends always hustled me out the back door real fast."
Earlier last week -- in fact, the night before an Atlanta judge granted Lewis bail at $1 million -- Lenny Moore was saying the same thing. In his magnificent career with the Baltimore Colts, Moore said, there were always strangers around him.
"You always had guys hanging around," he said. "Big Daddy [Lipscomb] and I would hang out on Pennsylvania Avenue when it was happening up there. We didn't know who every individual was. You didn't ask for a guy's credentials.
"But there came a time," Moore said, very slowly now, "when you said, `Look, this is where I'm going, and you can't go there.' And that's what every athlete has to learn."
Apparently, there are other things they also must learn. The National Football League has what it calls a Violent Crime Policy. You thought certain things would be self-evident? You would be wrong. Here is the very first sentence in this policy:
"Engaging in violent criminal activity is unacceptable and constitutes conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League."
Excuse me, but this has to be put down on paper? This has to be stated as an official policy -- as though, if it is not spelled out, some of the young men who play professional football might mistakenly assume that violent criminal activity is actually encouraged?
"You know," Bruce Laird was saying now, "they used to give us the same lecture every year I was with the Colts. They'd send in some guy from the league office, and he'd tell us to avoid bars and drugs and shady women. We'd sit in the back of the room laughing.
"You know, `How stupid could the guy be? Everybody knew that chick was a hooker.' Just goofing off, you know? Because we figured, we're grown men. Nobody has to tell us who to hang around with."
Only, in the current context, this appears the stuff of naivete. Or stupidity. And that's why I went to the Ray Lewis press conference. Nobody around here says Lewis plunged the knife into those poor souls in Atlanta. But he might have been hanging out with whoever did. And he was certainly hanging out with tough guys with shady backgrounds, thereby risking his life, his career, his family and his millions.
And how dumb does any guy have to be who would do that?