Fallout could be harsh

Ravens star running back faces significant penalties from league if convicted

Date of alleged crime no factor

NFL's punishment power in substance-abuse cases described as `pretty broad'

Jamal Lewis Indictment

February 27, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Ravens running back Jamal Lewis could face significant punishment from the NFL if convicted on federal drug charges, even though his alleged crime took place before he joined the team, an attorney familiar with the league's substance-abuse policy said yesterday.

Lewis, who already has been entered in Stage 3 of the policy, was charged this week with conspiring to possess, with intent to distribute, 5 kilograms of cocaine in the summer of 2000, before he signed his first contract with the Ravens.

As a result of the league's pervasive powers in dealing with substance abuse, Lewis potentially could be dealt a suspension of more than a year and/or an extensive fine.

"That's because things are written [in the substance-abuse policy] as if there was no time limitation," said Chicago attorney Michael Baird, who represented former Raven Larry Webster during his 10-game suspension for substance abuse in 2000.

"If you commit a felony in most states, you can't be charged after three years," Baird said. "The feds might stretch it to five. [But] the NFL doesn't have a limit."

Lewis, 24, has had at least two violations of the substance abuse policy in his four-year NFL career. He was suspended without pay for four games in 2001, when he missed the season with a torn knee ligament.

It's not known when Lewis failed his first drug test because of the league's confidentiality policy. But it is possible it happened before he entered the league.

Acknowledging the league's power under the substance abuse program "is pretty broad," Baird said incoming players must sign a contract at the league's scouting combine in Indianapolis each year. That contract allows the NFL to review medical records and possible drug tests at the players' respective colleges.

Should a player fail a drug test at the combine, all 32 teams will be notified and the player will be entered into the program once drafted or signed. Also, if there is an indication of previous problems, the league can dictate that a player be evaluated by doctors in the program. Pending the results of that evaluation, they can then be entered into the program.

Players cannot be disciplined, however, for any positive drug tests before coming into the league.

The league does not release information about what substance was abused. But according to Baird, once a player is entered in the program, he is given a wide range of restrictions.

"Essentially what they do when someone goes in the drug program is give them a whole laundry list of things you're not allowed to do," Baird said. "It's not just that you can't test positive for drugs. There are a lot of things you can't do.

"They've gone so far as to list people you can't associate with."

Since Lewis' accusations deal with cocaine, it's expected that the NFL will treat this case under its substance abuse policy and not its personal conduct policy, which addresses criminal activity.

Any violation of the program might have to do with the restrictions that were imposed previously, Baird suggested.

"They would have designed an aftercare program for Jamal that would have set certain conditions," he said. "Chances are, it's a condition of his aftercare program [the league will look at].

"It may be that he was associating with drug users [in 2000]."

Baird said he has represented "half a dozen" players who have gone through the league's substance abuse program, including Webster, who is now out of the league.

Baird said the discretionary powers of the league to treat each case differently is the cause of some concern. The league does not have a set of hard and fast rules that apply to each violation of the program. It takes into consideration a wide range of factors before meting out its punishment.

"I think the system has a very good goal," he said. "The idea of doing what it can to keep players away from drugs, I don't think another league does a better job than the NFL.

"The difference is the way it's enforced. When you have a rule that can take their livelihood away, if you enforce that rule with blinders on, it can lead to fairly inequitable results."

Baird also suggested that the NFL is especially cognizant of the image it projects when players are hit with drug charges.

"I think it [the program] is leaning toward the harsh side," he said. "I think the league is very sensitive to the idea of being soft on players for any reason.

"Although they do take individual circumstances into consideration, if there's got to be a leaning one way or another, it's a leaning in the direction of making it more harsh. They don't want it to look to the outside world like they're soft on drug problems."

Lewis will remain in Stage 3 of the program, with no more than 10 unannounced drug tests per month, for the rest of his career.

NFL policies

On substance abuse

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