Ravens lucky this sheriff didn't lead posse in 2000

April 11, 2007|By RICK MAESE

If you scan over the NFL's new personal conduct policy, it's difficult to immediately discern just how tough these new guidelines really are. The league can't anticipate every scenario and thus can't draw straight lines between infractions and punishments.

Forget looking forward. To understand exactly what kind of teeth this new policy will have, it might be easier if we look to the past. That's when we can really see how different this league is operating and how different commissioner Roger Goodell is from his predecessor.

So let's go back a few years, to Jan. 28, 2000, just a couple of days before the Super Bowl, just a couple of days before the biggest controversy that has ever rocked the Ravens. Former commish Paul Tagliabue was in front of a microphone, defending the league's personal conduct policy and bragging to reporters about studies that indicate NFL players are involved in fewer criminal incidents than the rest of society.

Just a few days later, Ray Lewis would become the league's second player to sit in a jail cell with murder charges hanging over his head. (Rae Carruth was the other.)

For the next four months, the league found itself in an unusual spot. The ongoing criminal investigation didn't stop reporters from continually asking what kind of punishment the league would hand down.

You didn't need to study a framed law degree from New York University to realize that Tagliabue was a trained lawyer. Due process was sacred, and it certainly trumped whatever beating the league's image might take.

We'll never know for certain, but the guess here is that if the new personal conduct policy announced yesterday had been in place before Lewis' arrest - if Goodell, who was the league's 40-year-old vice president of football operations at the time, had been the NFL's top dog - the course of Ravens history would look a lot different.

Goodell handed down a pair of severe suspensions yesterday based entirely on actions and perceived actions - not convictions. Adam "Pacman" Jones and Chris Henry could be cleared legally, but the NFL has ruled them guilty of poor judgment already. Seven years ago, Tagliabue waited until after Lewis accepted a plea bargain to announce the linebacker would not face a suspension. (Lewis was, however, fined $250,000.)

Goodell wrote a letter to the newly suspended players yesterday stating: "Your conduct has brought embarrassment and ridicule upon yourself, your club, and the NFL, and has damaged the reputation of players throughout the league." In a news release, he said: "We must protect the integrity of the NFL."

Though that was certainly important to his old boss, Tagliabue was much more cautious. Goodell is showing he intends to aggressively curb bad behavior.

So what would he have done to Lewis in 2000? Would Lewis have missed games? Would it have affected the Ravens' eventual Super Bowl victory?

Yesterday's rough outline of the new policy certainly leads us to think Lewis would've been handed something stiffer than a six-figure fine. Though we don't know the specific penalty, Goodell has shown he intends to strictly enforce the rules - which Tagliabue didn't do with Lewis.

Just weeks before Lewis' plea agreement, the NFL first coined the phrase "personal conduct policy" and added a few new infractions to the list, including obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor charge to which Lewis eventually pleaded guilty.

Tagliabue essentially said the player had already suffered enough and a suspension wasn't necessary. Goodell's approach seems to take into greater consideration the league's suffering.

"The highest standards of conduct must be met by everyone in the NFL," he said yesterday, "because it is a privilege to represent the NFL, not a right."

We'll never know how history would be different if Tagliabue adopted a similar policy seven years ago, but setting Jones' case side by side with Lewis' certainly provides an interesting comparison.

The details are completely different, as is Jones' own history and the frequency with which he has visited police stations.

Luckily for Lewis, though, the man running the NFL was also different.

Two days before the 2000 Super Bowl, Tagliabue held his annual news conference and afterward spoke in an impromptu session with a few reporters. That was seven years ago. Those two people hadn't yet died in Atlanta. Lewis hadn't yet been arrested. And there was Tagliabue, apparently downplaying talk of player misconduct.

According to a Sun report at the time, Tagliabue had this to say: "Sometimes, life has a way of repeating itself. Sometimes, we have a way of getting all caught up today without understanding the context in which these issues arise."

What they lacked at the time, he said, was context. And maybe he was right then, but the NFL seems to have accepted that we have sufficient context now. The rules are different now, and by looking at the past, we can get a sense of how the game could be different, as well.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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