FOUR YEARS AGO this week, Jamal Lewis was preparing for the Super Bowl. This winter, he has exactly the opposite kind of assignment.
Lewis will serve four months in prison, which isn't news to anyone who has followed the running back's federal drug case over the past year.
What is news, however, is that the judge whose job it was to finally and formally sentence Lewis did so by uttering these words:
"The government didn't have as strong a case as they would have liked," Chief U.S. District Judge Orinda Evans said in court Wednesday.
"The government basically had only one witness as to the transaction that Mr. Lewis pleaded guilty to." And that witness was a government informant who was "quite impeachable."
It's confusing sometimes for the average person to figure out how it works. Either an athlete is getting off easy because of celebrity status, or he's being made an example because of the same celebrity status.
When Lewis was indicted on federal drug charges 11 months ago, his high-profile criminal defense lawyer wasn't afraid to frame the breaking story against the Ravens' star running back in exactly this fashion.
"[The] informant is attempting to set up Jamal Lewis to get out of jail. It is odd that this is coming right after he had a very successful season. Sometimes celebrities get targeted because they are in the news," Ed Garland said outside the Atlanta courthouse.
Add the complicated issue of race to the equation and the varying degrees to which "justice" is served based on race, and a person's head can spin like Beetlejuice trying to figure out what went down.
Look at the way O.J. Simpson's not-guilty verdict in his criminal murder trial was received by the public: pretty much split right down the racial divide.
The percentages and statistics don't lie. African-Americans are much more likely to wind up behind bars in America - one of three young black men will spend some time in prison. The 2 million prisoners in a country 20 years into overzealously fighting a war on drugs can tell that story in black and white.
In the mug shots, not to mention in the national collective consciousness as defined by majority white America, a rich, black athlete looks a lot like any other black criminal defendant, especially when the handcuffs are slapped on.
Therein lies part of the reason why Garland and the rest of Lewis' high-priced legal squad opted to negotiate a plea bargain with federal prosecutors. The risk of taking Lewis to court was to risk putting into play the dangerous variables of not only the case against Lewis, but also his race and celebrity status.
"Of course we were concerned," said Don Samuel, another of Lewis' attorneys. "The northern district of Georgia is a huge district. There could be farmers on the jury or someone who lives right next to the courthouse. It's hard to know what the jury would look like."
Was it a raw deal? It's a legitimate question, especially after the judge acknowledged the case against Lewis was weak.
Mostly what it explains, however, is that the case was sufficiently weak as to promote prosecutors to settle with Lewis, in exchange for his testimony, if needed, against a co-defendant in the case, Angelo Jackson.
"I think the way to look at it is there's a difference between whether someone did something wrong and whether the government can prove it," Samuel said.
"There were so many problems with this case. That doesn't meant Jamal didn't do anything wrong. The phone calls are the phone calls. We can all hear what was said on the tapes. But we could have had a hung jury. We could have tried this thing two, three, four times."
Lewis has done the right thing at every step since being indicted, down to not appealing the two-game suspension that the NFL imposed upon learning of his guilty plea in lieu of a jury trial.
The answer as to whether he was unfairly charged and sentenced lies with Lewis himself. On Wednesday, he gave the answer by standing up in court and telling Judge Evans he was sorry.
It was an act of contrition consistent with the Lewis we have seen over the past year. Not once since the charges against him were announced has Lewis given any hint of arrogance or bluster. He has never hid from the charges, even when his lawyers initially called them preposterous lies.
Lewis never gave indication that he expected to be completely exonerated. He took a resolute position that his legal team would do the best to protect him, if only to minimize the penalty from his getting stuck in a sting operation.
One stupid word uttered on a cell phone in an Atlanta restaurant was enough to place Lewis in legal jeopardy, but not enough for the federal prosecutors to take him down.
For that, Lewis has long seemed relieved. That's enough to amply indicate he doesn't feel aggrieved by a legal system that's fair in theory but not perfect in practice.
Getting entrapped by the feds is a bogus way to face the prospect of as many as 10 years in jail. But to be entrapped, it takes being in the wrong place at the wrong time, talking into a cell phone about something illegal. It was just enough to pose a big problem for Lewis, even if the case was riddled with problems.
The best way out was a straight run to daylight, fast as possible.