Winning back fans' respect will take longer for Lewis

June 07, 2000|By John Eisenberg

You can't plea-bargain infamy, a sanction that's going to stick with Ray Lewis a lot longer than a year's probation on a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge.

The Ravens' All-Pro linebacker won't go to jail, but he'll always be the $26 million man who went to trial on a double-murder charge.

It's fair and it's unfair -- he was wrongly accused of murder, but guilty of alternately using poor judgment and behaving criminally before, during and after the tragic incident in Atlanta.

Whether he deserves to have his name so tarnished is endlessly debatable, but either way, he's going to have to live with the infamy now, and how he handles it is what matters.

Will he be the same, fierce player he was before Atlanta? Or will he be somehow diminished, too shaken just to pick right up where he left off?

There's no knowing at this point, although no Raven has been tougher or more driven and single-minded than Lewis, and it's tempting to say he'll be fine.

But the reality is some athletes can handle infamy and some can't, and it's not a thing you can predict, like a Super Bowl or a boxing match.

Braves pitcher John Rocker hasn't done well in the wake of a Sports Illustrated article that jacked his reputation right out of the park. He's back in the minor leagues after getting hammered on the mound and threatening to smack the SI reporter who quoted him. Rocker could end up in the has-been bin, courtesy of his mouth.

Roberto Alomar, who was Public (Sports) Enemy No. 1 for a time after spitting on an umpire in 1996, also struggled with being internationally unpopular. A sensitive type, he wasn't the same in his last two years with the Orioles, although injuries and other factors contributed. Things are better now that he has changed teams and the boos have dissipated, but his road has been long and rocky.

On the other hand, there's the case of Latrell Sprewell, who choked his coach in practice while with the Golden State Warriors a few years ago. Few troubled athletes were more scorned nationally, but Sprewell has survived and even prospered with the New York Knicks, becoming a well-spoken advertisement for the NBA. Go figure.

As a general rule, time eases the burden. We live in the age of the short attention span. Keep a low profile long enough, and people will forget what you did wrong. Let's see, was that the murderer, the racist or the pervert? Marv Albert, who bit a woman in the back and dressed up in lingerie, has his NBC job back. Baseball won't forgive Pete Rose, but many fans have.

At this point, it's hard to imagine Lewis' reputation making such a recovery. The circumstances of his infamy are a bit more damaging. Many fans here will give him standing ovations - make of that what you wish - but others won't easily forget the images of him cavorting in a raunchy video and misleading police after the murder.

He has lost the respect of many fans who'd admired him, and getting it back might be impossible.

Of course, the odds of that affecting him on the field are relatively small. The relationship between fans and players is far less personal in football than in baseball or basketball. Football players wear helmets and face guards. When 300-pound opponents are trying to squash them, fan abuse is low on their list of priorities.

But it's not the boos that would get to Lewis so much as the harsh realization that he's been indelibly labeled as a bad guy, a frustration that obviously got to Rocker, to cite one example. Lewis will confront the same depressing reality soon enough, after the relief of having avoided jail wears off.

It raises interesting questions in a football setting. With his character in such question, will Lewis feel as comfortable exhibiting his violent side on the field? Will the severe restrictions imposed on his lifestyle - no alcohol for a year, etc. - somehow make him a lesser force on Sundays?

It's all up to him in the end. He can go one of two ways from here.

He can pull a Rocker, complain about being dragged through the mud and forget why he got in trouble in the first place. That would ensure that his reputation never recovers, his head remains clouded and his game probably diminishes.

The other choice is to be humble, contrite, self-effacing and a more responsible citizen than before. Don't talk about changing his ways, just do it. Pull a Sprewell, circa 2000.

If Lewis does that, there's a chance he could restore at least some of the polish to his name and earn back an ounce or three of respect from turned-off fans.

It won't be easy; infamy is a much tougher opponent than any runner Lewis has tried to tackle.

But fans do forgive and forget, and even a guy once wrongly accused of double murder can make a comeback - if he's serious and genuine about cleaning up his act.

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