Athlete's fall can devastate younger fans

Coaches and experts urge patience, employ Lewis case as a teaching tool

Jamal Lewis Indictment

February 27, 2004|By John Woestendiek and Stacey Hirsh | John Woestendiek and Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

When it comes to outfitting the Northwest Bulldogs, Coach Tyrone Johnson doesn't always have enough No. 31s to go around.

Players in the Maryland Football Association program, ages 5 to 15, look up to the Baltimore Ravens' No. 31 - partly for his achievements on the field, partly because he donated several bicycles a few years back, partly because he's Jamal Lewis.

When one of them, Johnson's son, Trey, 13, ran into Lewis in a Circuit City store, he was thrilled.

"I could just see the excitement on his face," said Johnson, head of the Northwest program.

Among those who feel the fallout when a rising sports star appears to fall from grace are the children who idolize him - and the adults who have to try to explain it.

In Lewis' case, that fallout began when he was indicted Wednesday in Atlanta on federal drug charges.

"What we would tell our kids is, `First off, we don't know what the facts of the situation are,'" Johnson said. "`And people in general are good people, and sometimes good people do bad things, but we have to just wait and see what happens.'"

Seeing a sports idol fall can cause children to go through confusion, disappointment and anger, said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "They're disappointed, and then they get angry because they feel like they've been let down," he said.

In cases where charges lead to a conviction, Roby said, it's an opportunity for adults to teach children that nobody's perfect.

"The opportunity is to get people, no matter how old or young they are, to understand that just because somebody holds a title or has a talent doesn't make them immune to poor judgment," Roby said.

It's also an opportunity to teach children that there can be role models without celebrity, money and fame, such as a parent, teacher, firefighter or policeman, he said.

Stephen Jefferson, a lecturer for the sports management program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst's Eisenberg School of Management, said the first thing he tells his students about such cases is to wait for all the facts.

"In a lot of cases, we want to jump to conclusions based on what we hear," Jefferson said. As for Lewis, he added, "He's been pretty exemplary as an athlete on the field and off the field, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt."

Lewis' community involvement includes speaking in schools and serving as host for community events in Baltimore and his hometown of Atlanta. In 2002, he played host to underprivileged children from Project Fresh Start, a Catholic Charities program for homeless families in Baltimore, at a Christmas Eve event at the ESPN Zone.

Lewis and his mother, Mary, founded Another Love for One Foundation to mentor youths in Baltimore and Atlanta - an achievement that helped prompt the Georgia General Assembly to pass a resolution in his honor.

For the past three years, Lewis has served as honorary chair of The Chocolate Affair, an annual fund-raising event for the Center for Poverty Solutions.

"He's a wonderful young man," said Alma Roberts, the center's chief executive. "He's a bright guy, level-headed. I'll withhold any judgment. ... We have to stick by him and see what all this means."

Roberts said the news of the charges came as a shock to her and her 12-year-old son, who moved here from Atlanta.

"I thought, `Oh, no, not another young role model,'" she said. "Kids today hear so much of this happening. It's just devastating."

The news media don't help, she added. "We just pump it in the kids' faces, and it can be demoralizing."

Baltimore police Officer Mack Smith was finishing up work Wednesday at the Police Athletic League center on Leadenhall Street, in the shadow of M&T Bank Stadium, when he heard the news on television.

"I'm sure he's a role model to a lot of kids here and in Atlanta," Smith said. "Lots of people wear his jersey."

By yesterday, many children had heard of the charges against Lewis, if not the full story.

When a boy named Jamal walked into the PAL center office, Smith asked what he had heard about Lewis.

"You mean being locked up?" the youngster asked.

"Well, he wasn't locked up," Smith said. "He turned himself in."

"I hear he was doing drugs," the boy said.

Smith told him that Lewis hadn't been charged with using drugs, or with selling them, but with conspiring to sell them.

One of the ideas behind PAL is to provide city youths with a different kind of role model and in the process to change the perception that some might have of police.

"That's why we're here," Smith said, "to help show that what they may perceive about the police being the bad guys or just being the people who lock people up may not be the case."

Smith wasn't advising anybody to pass judgment on Lewis.

"He's not guilty until proven guilty," Smith said. "It's just like with the Kobe [Bryant] case: You just have to wait and see."

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