J. Lewis may be suspended this season

If Ravens back enters a guilty plea, NFL could discipline him at any time

October 03, 2004|By Jamison Hensley and Ken Murray | Jamison Hensley and Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Jamal Lewis is in jeopardy of being suspended this season if the NFL acts swiftly to discipline the Ravens' running back, who is expected to enter a guilty plea in his drug conspiracy case this week.

Lewis, 25, is subject to the league's substance abuse policy, which would come into play as soon as the player's plea-bargain agreement is accepted in federal court in Atlanta.

The Sun reported yesterday that attorneys for Lewis had reached a deal with prosecutors under which he will receive four to six months in prison, according to people familiar with the agreement.

He is not expected to begin serving his sentence until after the football season. However, he could be dealt a suspension by the NFL at any time after pleading guilty to a violation of the law, according to sources within the NFL who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"You shouldn't rule out the possibility of disciplinary action this year," said a source familiar with Lewis' situation.

U.S. District Judge Orinda D. Evans is expected to hold a hearing on the plea agreement Thursday in Atlanta, and Lewis may enter his plea at that time. The judge is not likely to object to terms of the agreement, according to people familiar with its content.

A plea agreement would allow Lewis to avoid a trial scheduled Nov. 1 in which he would have faced a career-ending sentence of at least 10 years if convicted on the principal charge. Lewis' attorneys had long maintained that he was innocent of charges that he brokered a cocaine deal in 2000 for a friend in Atlanta. But they acknowledged that going before a jury would be risky.

Lewis' sentence is expected to be on the low end of four to six months and could include time in a halfway house.

Don Samuel and Ed Garland, attorneys for Lewis, declined to comment.

Lewis, last season's NFL Offensive Player of the Year, would not confirm a plea-bargain deal had been reached. "I don't know anything," he said.

"I have to talk to my lawyer, and my lawyers have to tell me what's going on. I only talk to my lawyers if I have to," Lewis said after yesterday's practice. "Anything else that comes out, it may be true and it may not be true."

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

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello declined to comment last night on the case, as well as reports of the plea agreement.

He said, however, that according to the league's substance abuse policy, drug-related violations of law are cause for discipline by commissioner Paul Tagliabue. That could include a fine, suspension without pay, or a combination of both.

Also, speaking generally about the policy, Aiello said all the relevant factors are considered by Tagliabue when deciding on discipline. Those factors involve the severity of the violation and the player's history of infractions.

If a player is in Stage 2 of the program, he can rotate out of the program with two years of clean testing. Should Lewis have rotated out after the positive test that led to his suspension in 2001, that obviously would be a point in his favor. His specific circumstances are not known because of privacy provisions.

The fact that the alleged criminal incidents occurred in June 2000, before Lewis signed his first contract, could enter the disciplinary formula in his favor.

The substance abuse policy is administered by the league's Management Council, headed by Harold Henderson, executive vice president of labor.

Tagliabue ultimately issues a decision on discipline for each case, or approves a recommendation by Henderson.

Once the NFL disciplines a player, the appeal process could take a few weeks. However, a source said it is unlikely that an appeal would keep Lewis playing through this season, with 13 weeks remaining, assuming a plea this week.

Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL players union, declined to comment.

Ravens coach Brian Billick said yesterday, "We've got a great deal of confidence in Jamal. We believe in this young man very strongly. When all the things come to light through the entire process, everybody will understand why that belief was so strong on our part."

Billick would not comment on potential NFL discipline. "The NFL will decide what they want to do with that and what the rules permit, and everyone will react accordingly," he said.

Lewis, who is scheduled to earn $3.2 million this season, would lose $190,235 for each week he would miss if suspended.

A lengthy suspension could affect Lewis' free-agency status. Lewis is signed through 2005, when he will make $2.6 million.

If the NFL suspends him for an entire season, Lewis might be ineligible for free agency because he did not play a game. If he plays any part of the final year of his contract, he would be able to sign with any team after the 2005 season.

Lewis, the reigning NFL rushing champion and the Ravens' leading rusher this season, said his case would not distract him from tomorrow night's game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

"You've got Monday Night Football, prime time and a national stage," Lewis said. "This is what I like to do, and this is my career. That says it all."

If the NFL hands down a suspension this year, Lewis could follow the same course as another running back.

The Minnesota Vikings' Onterrio Smith, in violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, was notified of his four-game suspension in training camp, and an appeal has delayed his hearing for eight weeks.

Sun staff writer Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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