With Ravens, you have to take good with bad

September 08, 2005|By David Steele

THE TWO contradictory public images of the Ravens faced off at high noon yesterday on an auditorium stage inside the team's Owings Mills headquarters.

Ray Lewis stood on the stage, the Ray Lewis who, to many outside of Baltimore, embodies everything wrong about the franchise as the most notorious defendant among a string of players who have run afoul of the law in recent years.

But he also was the Ray Lewis who was being gazed upon in awe by the four Baltimore City high school senior football players lined up behind him -- wearing brand-new uniforms paid for by the Ravens' charitable foundation and holding helmets purchased jointly by Lewis' own foundation and that of team owner Steve Bisciotti.

Which image of the Ravens rings most true? Realistically, both. Within a week's span, one can see a key offseason addition, Samari Rolle, fined by the NFL for an offseason domestic violence incident; a group of school athletic directors thanking the team for its generosity; the debut of the aforementioned uniforms in season openers for the city's 18 public school teams; and the regular-season return of Jamal Lewis after a federal prison sentence on a drug conviction.

The replacement of uniforms, some of them a decade old, saves a flat-broke school system some $250,000. More help is on the way later this year, when the Ravens repeat the gesture for the city's high school girls basketball teams. And plans are in the works for the Ravens to pick up the tab, through various means, for a $1.25 million renovation of Poly's field for next season, to be shared by the schools, for night games on turf, just as Mervo's new field is now.

"We're trying to go around the city and let our city know that we're not just here for the Ravens, but we're also here for our city," Ray Lewis said, explaining yesterday's gesture.

Add that to, among other acts, the fundraising challenges and matches for hurricane relief and the players' longstanding habit of making unannounced visits and contributions to city schools and recreation centers, and the Ravens have built an impressive record of civic-minded behavior.

And, almost simultaneously, a record for knuckleheaded behavior and its enabling that rivals that of the old Raiders at their best (or worst).

Tommy Polley, Ravens linebacker and a star at Dunbar in the mid 1990s -- who had attended the announcement of the uniform purchases in June along with safety Ed Reed -- thinks both sides of the franchise's image aren't getting equal treatment."I'd say we've got a good balance here. Most people outside of Baltimore think the Ravens are a bunch of wild guys, but we have a lot of good guys who do a lot of good work," he said.

"It's not big news for Ray Lewis to donate $100,000 to someone," Polley added, "but if he got in trouble, it would be on the bottom of the screen every five minutes."

It's a split perception of this franchise that its members have learned to live with -- a significant segment despising the seemingly loose standards, an equally significant segment admiring the bond with the city it works to maintain. The fact that the same players, such as Ray Lewis, often represent both sides is to some a baffling dichotomy.

"We get a lot of grief for Ray and Jamal, a lot of criticism," said team president Dick Cass, the point man for many of the interactions with the city, including the uniforms. "But I feel very comfortable defending them. They're quality people."

Those kids in Owings Mills yesterday -- Dunbar's Quinton Garrus, Mervo's Jerrell Spears, Lake Clifton's Cameron Gray and City's Sheldon Bell -- didn't need to have their heroes defended. They are part of the first generation to grow up with the Ravens and Ray Lewis, yet they were still shocked that they had exchanged their ratty, hand-me-down jerseys and worn-out, unsafe headgear for something new.

"Nah, I never imagined that," Gray said.

Neither did Bob Wade, the city's interscholastic athletic director and a coaching institution, who said he couldn't recall such a gift from a pro team in his lifetime.

"You might get a donation for School A or School B, but every team from head to toe?" Wade said. "Never. Never. It's a dream come true. I tell you, these kids are tickled pink. They can't wait to go out and play."

Bisciotti admits to a touch of selfish motivation for the uniform donations. "In a way, we're making up for lost time. Maybe I owe this city a lot more, for the fans who went 12 years without the NFL," he said.

But as he pays that debt, does he also counteract the bad-boy image of his players? One has nothing to do with the other, Bisciotti countered, with a slight edge in his voice.

"I don't give to my church based on how good my kids are," he said. "I don't give more when they get in trouble."

That's the Ravens. When they're bad, they're bad, and when they're good, they're good.

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