For littlest fans, there's no making sense of a cruel world


ATLANTA -- His uniform was prison red instead of Ravens purple. His wrists were handcuffed, ensuring that Ray Lewis would make no tackles, not on this day, and maybe never again.

All I could think of was my son.

How would I explain this to my son?

My son is 8 years old. Ray Lewis is his favorite Raven. I can still picture the joy on his face after he emerged from a crowd with Lewis' autograph at training camp last summer.

I could only imagine his face in Baltimore yesterday when my wife had to tell him the terrible news before he heard it at school, trying to help a little boy make sense of a cruel world.

Few NFL players are more demonstrative than Lewis, the Ravens' three-time Pro Bowl linebacker. But yesterday, he stood silently in a courtroom, his hands shackled in front of him, his head bowed, his face impassive.

One by one, accused criminals appeared before Judge Elaine L. Carlisle in Courtroom No. 1 at Atlanta Municipal Court. An armed robbery suspect. A man charged with possession of cocaine. Another man charged with criminal trespassing.

And then, the NFL's leading tackler, charged with murdering two men.

Six television cameramen and three still photographers focused on Lewis as he emerged through a side door. Minutes later, he left through the same door to return to the Atlanta City Jail, his preliminary hearing postponed until Feb. 24.

All his millions mean little.

Lewis, 24, is being held without bail.

Larry Gardner, senior assistant solicitor for the state of Georgia, requested the postponement, saying he needed more time to confer with witnesses and police.

Max Richardson Jr., the attorney hired by Lewis' agents, said law enforcement officers knew Lewis wasn't guilty, raising the obvious question of why the player was arrested.

"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Richardson said, and maybe Lewis is indeed innocent. Maybe he is guilty of a lesser crime. Maybe the two other suspects mentioned by his lawyer are the true murderers.

Maybe there will come another morning when I can again hold a picture of No. 52 over the top bunk of my son's bed, mimicking Lewis' scratchy, high-pitched voice as I order the boy to awaken.

But what do I tell him in the meantime?

A man is innocent until proven guilty. That is Lewis' remnant of hope, the legal protection to which all Americans are entitled.

Even good people can do bad things. That is the saying parents use to explain the inexplicable, and it's clearly inadequate when the bad thing is murder.

The world isn't always as it seems. That is a lesson a child shouldn't learn until he is much, much older.

People say sports was better 20, 30, 40 years ago, and the nostalgia can get tiresome. But you know what? When I was growing up in New York in the 1970s, the worst thing my father had to explain to me was a trade.

He never had to explain a player being charged with murder.

As a writer, you grow hardened to grim news, even when it's about players you know on a professional level. But this is so far beyond other awful sports developments -- intolerant remarks, drug offenses, other crimes and misdemeanors -- it haunts you to the core.

Which Ray Lewis was I looking at yesterday?

The player everyone in Baltimore admires? Or some monster?

At this point, there's no way to know. But Lewis has lost enough friends to understand the impact of murder.

In 1996, shortly after he was drafted by the Ravens, Lewis spoke touchingly about the late Marlin Barnes, his roommate, teammate and fellow linebacker for three years at the University of Miami.

Barnes, 22, was murdered in a Miami apartment he shared with two other teammates. Lewis attended his funeral the day of the draft.

"I can't bring Marlin back," Lewis said then. "The only thing I can do is let his spirit live on, do the things he wanted me to do."

It wasn't the only tragedy Lewis endured.

He wears a tattoo of a black panther on his right chest in honor of the late Raymond King, his mentor growing up in Lakeland, Fla. King was shot dead during an attempted bank robbery -- Lewis said King was just caught in the middle -- in Tallahassee in October 1993.

Lewis also wears a black panther tattoo below his right shoulder in honor of the late Timmy Moore, a former high school teammate. Moore was murdered a month before Barnes.

After all that, is it even possible that Lewis is capable of double homicide?

Again, there's no way to know.

Many pro athletes seem to live in an exclusive parallel universe, apart from the real world. Fame is a given. Money is no object. And if some moral or legal line is crossed, a lawyer, union or owner always comes to the rescue.

To a fan, the lesson of all this should be obvious, albeit painful. Trust the art, not the artist. Look elsewhere for role models. Admire the players for their performance, but no more.

It's easy to say to an adult, not so easy to say to an 8-year-old.

Ray Lewis is charged with murder.

How do I explain this to my son?

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