TAMPA, Fla. - In his first formal act of Super Bowl XXXV here, Ravens coach Brian Billick yesterday rebuked a crowd of more than 200 reporters for continued coverage of Ray Lewis' double-murder trial last spring.
Resplendent in a gray suit with black shirt and tie, Billick went on attack soon after the Ravens' plane touched down for Sunday's game against the New York Giants.
"As much as some of you want to, we are not going to retry this," Billick told reporters. "It's inappropriate, and you're not qualified."
Lewis, the Ravens' All-Pro middle linebacker, was charged with murder along with two companions after a post-Super Bowl brawl left two men dead outside a nightclub in Atlanta last January. Those charges were dropped during the trial in exchange for Lewis' testimony against his companions and a plea bargain to a misdemeanor of obstruction of justice for failing to cooperate with police in the murder investigation.
Before Billick arrived here, however, he had already reviewed a score of newspaper and television reports dealing with the families of the victims of Atlanta.
Yesterday, he characterized those reports as "ambulance-chasing" and accused journalists of sensationalizing the case that gripped the sporting world during the past off-season.
"I'm not naive enough to not recognize there's going to be an interest," he said. "But, to be quite frank, I'm a little disturbed with some of the focus being brought to it for the reason it's being brought.
"I equate it to an ambulance-chasing mode; you decide that you want to take on a certain sensational aspect of it."
Asked at one point how he could tell so many people how to do their job, Billick responded bluntly.
"I have the podium, and you all are here to listen to me," he said. "Next question."
Billick's harangue came at the end of a 10-minute introductory statement before taking questions from the media. According to Kevin Byrne, Ravens vice president of public relations, the coach was making a pre-emptive strike on an issue that refuses to fade away.
"It was clear what the story was going to be," Byrne said. "He was going to have to answer it. Brian always goes at it that way. He just addressed it in advance."
Lewis was not available for interviews yesterday, but will be today, when both teams hold court separately at Raymond James Stadium. It's expected Lewis will make a statement about the trial and attempt to put it behind him once more.
"Ray said, `I did a press conference. Why do I have to do it again?' " Byrne said. "I told him, `Because this is the Super Bowl.' "
Billick said he would address the issue only once.
"To begin with, it's important to note that all the charges were dropped against Ray Lewis," he said. "There was no plea bargaining. It became very apparent to the D.A. [district attorney], because it was very apparent to anybody that witnessed the proceeding, that Ray's involvement in that did not warrant the accusations or the charges. That's why they were dropped.
"Ray, after the charges were dropped, offered to testify. He admitted readily to having not handled the situation the way he wished he had, in terms of not dealing with police in a forthright manner. And it was dealt with at a misdemeanor level. These are the facts. You can stir it up, you can talk about it, but you're not going to change the facts."
The families of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker, both of whom were stabbed to death last January, have been outspoken against Lewis since the trial ended with no convictions.
"From Day One, from the day the trial was over, through training camp on several occasions, we have always steadfastly maintained our sympathy for the victims' families, our respect for that process and our faith in Ray Lewis," Billick said.
"He has certainly showed sympathy for the families. He has publicly stated he would like, at the appropriate time, to meet with the family. But he fully understands, as we do, that they have a predisposition that is clearly understandable, and [he is] clearly not particularly optimistic about that face-to-face meeting happening."
Lewis was fined $250,000 by the NFL for the misdemeanor, but was not suspended. In an off-season that also included murder charges leveled at former Carolina Panthers receiver Rae Carruth, the NFL broadened its policy against violent crime to include money laundering, racketeering and obstruction of justice.
Although Lewis appealed the fine, the league has not yet rendered a verdict on the appeal.
vs. N.Y. Giants (14-4)
When: Sunday, 6:18 p.m.
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Ravens by 3
Fast fact: This is the third time Tampa has played host to the Super Bowl. New Orleans and Miami are tied for most times as the host city with eight apiece.
Coming this week: Starting tomorrow, The Sun will publish daily Super Bowl special sections through Monday.