Here's the real deal: R. Lewis just latest ungrateful athlete

Commentary

The Kickoff

February 24, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

I don't want to pile on Ray Lewis - who is one of the greatest players in the history of the NFL and has been the heart and soul of the Ravens for a long time - but I'm having a tough time figuring out just what he has to be upset about.

The Ravens gave him a $19 million signing bonus a few years ago and made him, at the time, the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL, but that's just the business end of it. The team also stood four-square behind him during that messy situation in Atlanta six years ago, which still ought to count for something.

The Ravens and Lewis hate it when anybody brings up the double-homicide investigation that ended with Lewis pleading guilty to a lesser charge of obstruction of justice, and I wouldn't even go there if this weren't another one of those who-owes-who aging player contract disputes.

If Lewis were just one of the best linebackers ever to play the game, and he were just the guy who led the Ravens to their Super Bowl title, I might buy into the notion that he deserves some special deference as he heads into the twilight years of his terrific career. I wish it were that simple, and I'm sure Lewis does, too.

Former majority owner Art Modell threw the entire weight of the organization behind him when it looked like Lewis might stand trial on much more serious charges, and coach Brian Billick stood up during Super Bowl week a year later and damaged his own image with the national media with an impassioned - and highly questionable - defense of his most dynamic player.

Now, we're left with a player who is past his prime and apparently convinced that the team is doing him wrong by (and this always gets me) holding him to the giant contract that he signed, supposedly in good faith, in 2002. I guess it's just the age we live in.

For some reason, this reminds me of a similar case of ingratitude back in the late 1990s, when Rafael Palmeiro pressed the Orioles for a new contract during spring training and then accepted less than the team's ultimate offer to return to the Texas Rangers at the end of the season. That was his right, of course, but I couldn't help feeling at the time that he owed the Orioles a little extra deference because owner Peter Angelos had used his substantial political clout to help get Palmeiro's brother out of Cuba.

I asked Palmeiro about that when he reported to Port Charlotte, Fla., the next spring and he was surprisingly flip about it. He acknowledged that he owed Angelos a debt of gratitude, but explained that it was "just business" and he was sure that Angelos would understand.

Of course, I could go on and on. Angelos stood up for Roberto Alomar after the infamous spitting incident of 1996, but Alomar eventually left the Orioles without so much as the courtesy of a phone call to the owner to thank him for his moral and financial support.

Miguel Tejada signed a six-year, $72 million contract a couple years ago that was considered well above market because the Orioles had to overpay to convince a premier free-agent player to join the struggling franchise. Two seasons later, he set off a winter-long controversy when he talked about a "change of scenery" because - surprise - the Orioles are a struggling franchise.

Which brings us full circle to a week when Tejada reported happily to spring training and the Ravens sent a message to another disgruntled player that loyalty plays both ways, choosing to let running back Jamal Lewis become a free agent rather than keeping him under a $6 million franchise tag.

Lewis, you might recall, complained bitterly that the team reneged on a promise to sign him to a hefty contract extension after he returned from four months in prison and two months in a halfway house for a drug offense. I rest my case.

If there's one thing I've learned over the many years that I've covered professional sports, most great athletes are very self-centered. That's probably how they maintain the drive and focus to become the best in the world at what they do. But that doesn't change the fact that Ray Lewis might benefit from putting his current contract situation in its proper perspective, as unpleasant as that might be.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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