NFL acts quickly in punishing J. Lewis

In addition to 2-game suspension, Ravens star loses $761,000 in salary, hears stern words from Tagliabue

October 09, 2004|By Ken Murray and Jamison Hensley | Ken Murray and Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Jamal Lewis drew a two-game suspension from the NFL and a strong reprimand from commissioner Paul Tagliabue yesterday for his role in an alleged drug conspiracy four years ago.

The NFL not only issued the suspension, but fined Lewis an additional two games' salary in a swift punishment for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

The league handed down its discipline one day after the Ravens' Pro Bowl running back pleaded guilty in federal court in Atlanta to using a telephone to help facilitate the sale of cocaine in the summer of 2000. He faces a combined six months in prison and a halfway house as a result of a plea bargain agreement.

Lewis received a letter notifying him of the punishment.

It included this reproach from Tagliabue:

"You have needlessly sullied your own reputation and reinforced unfair and negative public perceptions of NFL players generally. The consequences of your poor judgment include incarceration, suspension from the NFL, and the loss of $761,000 in salary. The longer term damage to your own reputation may well be even greater."

Lewis' suspension will begin with the Ravens' Oct. 24 home game against the Buffalo Bills and will include an Oct. 31 road trip to Philadelphia. Because he will not formally decline the opportunity to appeal the NFL's decision until next week, Lewis will be able to play in tomorrow night's game in Landover against the Redskins.

Lewis will not be paid while on suspension, or for the next two games. The cost in forfeited salary will be $760,940.

Yesterday, speaking to reporters before the suspension announcement, Lewis, 25, was relieved.

"It's a load off my shoulders," he said. "Now I can continue on. I don't have to worry about that anymore, and I can just get on with my life and play football.

"As long as my career is all right, I'm all right."

Ravens coach Brian Billick voiced similar sentiments.

"It's good to have definition to it rather than the ambiguity of what, when, if or how," Billick said.

Asked about the punishment, Billick said: "We support the league's position."

It was a position that considered several factors in Lewis' unique case, not the least of which was the timing. Lewis was charged with trying to broker a drug deal for a co-defendant in the conspiracy case in June 2000, before he had signed his $35 million contract with the Ravens.

Lewis attempted to set up the drug deal with a woman who turned out to be a government informant, using a cell phone.

"Although the underlying circumstances were known to the government almost immediately, you were not charged with any offense until February 2004 - nearly four years later," Tagliabue wrote. "The conversation did, however, occur after you had been drafted, attended one or more Ravens' minicamps, and while your agent was in the process of negotiating an NFL contract for you."

Lewis also benefited from the fact he "did not request or expect to receive any money from any sale of cocaine," Tagliabue said. "In fact, no drugs were ever bought or sold, whether by you or any other party to the proposed sale."

Since serving a four-game suspension in 2001 for his second offense of the substance abuse program, Lewis has gone more than three years without failing any of the league's mandated drug tests. His guilty plea was considered a violation of the program's provision on a drug-related crime.

Don Samuel, one of Lewis' Atlanta attorneys, declined to characterize the NFL's punishment, but he indicated a level of leniency.

"I think the NFL looked at the same information everybody else looked at and saw a lot of mitigating evidence here, from the timing of the event and the background and what in fact he didn't do," Samuel said.

Circumstances also led to the conditions in the plea agreement, with his sentence expected to be four months in a minimum-security prison and two months in a halfway house. Lewis is expected to serve his prison sentence after the regular season.

Lewis is comfortable with the decision to accept the plea agreement, which a federal judge tentatively approved yesterday.

"I know my lawyers know what is best," he said. "I kind of left it in their hands. I just want to move on in my career and get everything going. So that's the decision I made, and I'm happy with it."

Said teammate Gary Baxter, a cornerback: "Jamal is a strong person, so he's going to be all right. He's going to take care of himself. I know everything is going to work out for him. He has 100 percent [support] from his teammates."

Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne said Lewis will consult with his attorneys about the possibility of an appeal of the NFL penalty, but that is simply to ensure that the running back will be available for tomorrow's game. Byrne said there are no plans to appeal.

Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association, declined to comment on the appeal options, citing player confidentiality.

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (2-2) vs. Washington Redskins (1-3)

Site: FedEx Field, Landover

When: Tomorrow, 8:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 7, ESPN/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM), WJFK (106.7 FM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Line: Ravens by 1

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