Retired Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis weighed in on the Aaron Hernandez situation, offering his opinion on the former New England Patriots star tight end during his debut as an ESPN football analyst.
During a roundtable discussion with Cris Carter, Keyshawn Johnson and Tom Jackson, Lewis said he believes the Patriots should have had some idea that Hernandez, who remains in jail after pleading not guilty to the charge of murdering Odin Lloyd, was headed down the wrong path.
"I want to make sure we clear something up because we have to do this for our brand of the National Football League: Our numbers are very small when it comes to the pain and the crime that happens in everyday America, the numbers of athletes that get in trouble," Lewis said when reacting to Carter's assertion that the Hernandez case could harm the image of the NFL. "New England had to know something, just like 31 other teams had to know something about Aaron Hernandez's background, and that's your red flag. Now, it's up to you to say, 'You know what, I'm still going to try that.'"
Jackson opined that someone should have had information about Hernandez's activities from his high school and college days to raise red flags for the Patriots.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft has said the Patriots were "duped" by Hernandez and had no idea he was living an apparent double-life as they signed him to a $40 million contract extension just a year ago.
"Someone had to know this kid was heading toward incarceration," Jackson said. "I think the mistake they made the thought was if we give him the money is it will help to straighten him out. But when they gave him the money, he only spiraled further out of control because he had the money."
Johnson noted all of the security background checks done by teams to gain knowledge about the character of draft prospects, including him when he was the top overall pick of the New York Jets out of USC.
"They didn't have to do a background check on me coming out of college," Lewis said of the Ravens. "I was clean off the field."
When asked by Carter if he had any character concerns coming out of the University of Miami, Lewis replied: "Absolutely not."
When Lewis was accused of a double murder in Atlanta following the Super Bowl in 2000 with the charges later dismissed by prosecutors with the NFL defensive icon pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice, he reflected on getting a call from the late Ravens majority owner Art Modell.
"I think the biggest phone call I received after my mom's phone call when I went through that was Art Modell," Lewis said. "He's dead and resting in peace now. That shows you the connection I had with my organization is they knew who I was as a man. They had been with me for five years at that point in my career. The thing that we should clear up and we're athletes.
"Before we're athletes, we're human beings. The bottom line is we will find a way as human beings to make a mistake somewhere down the road. The biggest thing I had to change, and Keyshawn, you and me just spoke about this, was I had to change the people I was around because the people I was around wasn't thinking the way I was thinking, they weren't training the way I was training, they wasn't doing the things that would take me to where I needed to go. They were actually making me regress and make me go backwards."
When Johnson asked Lewis what made him change his associations, Lewis credited the guidance of former Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe, one of his closest friends and mentors.
"You know what, my change only came when I found myself in that situation," Lewis said. "What happens with people like us is your heart steps in the way most of the time. You always want to help where you came from, but you can't help. Shannon Sharpe, the No. 1 thing is he said, 'Now, you have a different opportunity to start over. The only way to start over is to change the people you're around.' That right there, changed my whole perspective."
For more on Lewis' overall performance on ESPN from David Zurawik, click here.