"I'm not exonerating Ray Lewis from being surrounded by the wrong people. That's a judgment he's made and if he comes out of this, that'll change, I promise you. I will talk to him," Modell said yesterday.
Modell said he was waiting for the trial to end to discuss the matter with Lewis. "I think it'd be wrong to talk to him before it's adjudicated," Modell said.
Modell also repeated his past assertion that he believes Lewis is innocent. "I am convinced, my players are convinced, my coaches, my personnel people, management - everybody in the organization is convinced that he is innocent of this crime. But it's not for us to judge," he said.
Modell added: "He was guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any other guilt would be in the poor selection of associates and hangers-on and parasites that hang around the superstars."
Modell said he may attend the trial in Atlanta when the defense presents its case, but will talk to Lewis' attorney, Ed Garland, before making a decision.
"It's Ed Garland's call," he said.
Modell made his comments on the first day of the owners' annual two-day May meeting as he came out of the meeting room several times to talk to a Ravens' staff member via cell phone to get updates on the trial. Modell said he planned to watch the tapes of the opening arguments last night.
During the first day of the meeting, the league fine-tuned its violence policy and changed the name of it to the player-conduct policy to cover such matters as drug trafficking and money laundering.
A league spokesman said commissioner Paul Tagliabue was too busy to address the media yesterday so Harold Henderson, the labor relations chief, explained the new policy that includes more seminars and testing of players.
Henderson conceded that the two teams (Ravens and Carolina Panthers) that have had players (Lewis and Rae Carruth) indicted on murder charges already had solid programs in place.
"That's why I've said we can't make too much of a judgment on two horrible cases because all the indications are that those two teams had very effective programs," he said.
Henderson added: "Brian Billick Ravens coach threw up his hands in March at the owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. and said, 'I don't know what else we can do. We did everything we could possibly do and here we are battling this disaster.' "
Billick holds about a dozen seminars a year for the players and stresses to them that nothing good can happen in a bar after midnight.
Lewis was in an Atlanta club until almost 4 a.m. the night of the Super Bowl before the incident took place.
But Billick said the youth of the players affects their judgment. "What's the saying, 'Youth is wasted on the young,' " Billick said.
Modell said: "You've got to understand the psyche of a player. The player comes, some of them, from a broken home, no mother, no father, he goes into high school, becomes a star scholastic athlete, is romanced by every athletic director in America, goes to college and majors in Ballroom 101 and suddenly the pros come along and throw $8 million at them. It's a revelation. It's a hard thing to cope with."
Modell also said the Ravens brought the Inner Circle, which was founded in Cleveland in 1980 to provide counseling for players with drug and alcohol problems as well as marital problems, to Baltimore when they made the move from Cleveland in 1996.
Modell said the program has saved lives and added, "There are people who are still in the NFL in meaningful positions who were graduates of the Inner Circle."
Billick said he still hopes Lewis will be able to play this fall, but is trying not to get caught up in the trial.
"I've made the analogy it's like driving by a car wreck. You tell yourself, 'I'm not going to look.' ... But you can't help but look. I've tried to make sure the organization doesn't get mesmerized by this. Let's go on about our business. Let's not become paralyzed by this thing," Billick said.
In other matters, the league approved the ownership switch of the San Francisco 49ers from Eddie DeBartolo to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, after the two siblings reached a private settlement to divide their family assets.
The owners also talked about the scheduling format in 2002 when Houston becomes the 32nd team, but didn't take a vote on it. The league is expected to go to eight four-team divisions with each division having 14 games against common opponents. That would allow the league to schedule two attractive wild-card games for each team, such as Jets-Giants and Ravens-Redskins.
But that idea appears to be too innovative for the conservative NFL, which appears ready to use a strength of schedule format for the two extra games.
The owners also passed a new early retirement benefit package for the assistant coaches, but it's uncertain if it'll meet the demands of the assistants, who are threatening to sue the league in an attempt to get better benefits.