RAVENS RUNNING BACK Jamal Lewis seemed to be turning the corner on the field and in life, but he won't fully recover from being indicted on federal drug conspiracy charges yesterday.
U.S. Attorney William S. Duffey Jr. announced the indictment at a news conference at which Lewis, the NFL's leading rusher last season, was charged with conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute 5 kilograms of cocaine in the summer of 2000.
In the past, when Ravens players ran into trouble, there always was apprehension among team officials about guilt or innocence. But yesterday, team officials were extremely confident about Lewis being exonerated, almost to the point that it would be a mere formality.
But whether or not Lewis has done anything wrong, nothing good comes from the indictment of an innocent man. Lewis will have to stand trial, and prosecutors will dig into his background and make public all his past mistakes and errors in judgment. The lives of friends and family members will change.
Another Lewis will be back in Atlanta, and we'll constantly see the old videotape of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis going into the Atlanta courtroom for a double murder trial in 2000.
The Ravens can't win, either. They already have the identity of being the Oakland Raiders of the East Coast, and the indictment of Jamal Lewis will only fuel the negative image of him and the team. We don't know if Jamal Lewis is guilty or innocent. As sportswriters, we like to think we're the link between the fans and sports heroes, but we really don't know these players personally.
But the Ravens expect Lewis to be fully exonerated. Why?
According to the indictment, the charges were based on a recorded conversation between Lewis and an informant, but no drugs were ever seized or purchased.
A team official said Lewis had been working with authorities on the case with his attorney, Ed Garland, within the past year and was surprised at the indictment. Other members of Lewis' defense team as well as the Ravens were surprised that the federal government waited four years before charging him.
If Lewis is found guilty as charged, then he deserves whatever punishment is given out. If not, then this will be a great disservice to him. Something just isn't right here. This has the smell of an overzealous prosecutor, or some witness willing to make a deal by turning over state's evidence.
Four years is a long time, long enough to change, long enough to learn right from wrong.
"We are aware of the situation, and we're trying to learn more," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a prepared statement. "These allegations go back to 2000, prior to Jamal's first training camp and contract. We've talked with Jamal, and he is returning to Atlanta to meet with authorities.
"We believe in due process and Jamal will have his day in court," Newsome said. "There are two sides to every story. From what we know of the charges, these seem out of character for the Jamal we know."
There aren't many players on the Ravens, or perhaps around the league, who have worked as hard as Lewis to rebuild his image.
The turnaround came after Lewis was suspended for four games in November 2001 for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy for the second time. Lewis vowed to never put himself or his team in that situation again.
According to several players close to Lewis, he rededicated himself to football, and worked hard to keep his weight down. He reported to last year's training camp at a chiseled 235 pounds. He boldly proclaimed he would run for more than 2,000 yards, but no one expected him to run for 2,066, 39 short of the all-time NFL record set by Eric Dickerson in 1984.
Lewis constantly worked out with Ray Lewis during the season and hired a chef to cook his meals. He spent a lot of time at charity events and signing autographs. Lewis always had a good demeanor, but he smiled a lot more last season.
It finally seemed that Lewis had grown up and was ready to become a team leader. He had demanded a contract extension for the coming season, and team officials were expecting to reward him soon after the opening round of free agency, possibly making him the highest-paid running back in the NFL.
But all that's been put on hold. Lewis is expected to turn himself into law officials in Atlanta today. His offense isn't of the magnitude of what Ray Lewis was charged with, but we'll all get that eerie feeling again.
Jamal Lewis' life will never be the same, even if acquitted. He'll get a label. He'll become stereotyped. Society loves to do that to athletes. It's unfortunate.
"That's the consequence of running afoul of the law, of getting into trouble," said outgoing Ravens owner Art Modell. "Even if you're innocent, the labels are symptomatic of our society. Has Ray Lewis' life ever been the same? Will Kobe Bryant's life ever be the same?
"No question about it, Jamal was starting to establish himself. He had become a good young man with ethics, qualities and values. I was shocked to hear about this until I learned it happened in 2000, which is eons ago. I think Jamal is going to be fine. I think it's going to work out for him."
Maybe enough to retain his freedom, but never enough to repair a reputation that had become solid once again.