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How are sports teams' national images formed today?

"The sound bite, the headline, the news brief; most people don't delve any deeper than that," said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "It's true in politics and true in sports. Snap judgments are made on what is often superficial evidence."

In that climate, the Ravens could suffer in the wake of Jamal Lewis' indictment on federal drug charges in Atlanta.

The intricacies of the case being analyzed here - the quality of the evidence, Lewis' possible culpability - are getting little attention elsewhere, where the story is simply "another star athlete in trouble," with the original twist that it's another star Ravens player named Lewis.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis faced murder charges and endured a highly publicized trial stemming from a fatal stabbing on an Atlanta street after the January 2000 Super Bowl.

Although he ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice, his problems became a defining image of the Ravens for some fans when he led the team to a Super Bowl victory in January 2001.

"My first thought when I heard about Jamal Lewis' situation was, 'Oh boy, this is going to be a nightmare for the Ravens,' " said Howard Nixon, a sports sociologist at Towson University. "There are still people in other cities who haven't forgotten about Ray Lewis. Now it's the two Lewises. And in Atlanta again, no less."

ESPN analyst Joe Theismann disagreed.

"The image of the Baltimore Ravens is that of a tough, hard-nosed, defense-driven team," said Theismann, a former Washington Redskins quarterback. "The situations with Ray and Jamal are, to me, no factor with regards to the team's image.

"The situation with Ray never comes up anymore. That was dealt with. Everyone moved on. With Jamal's situation, I believe the only way it could hurt the Ravens is if it leaves him unable to play."

Nixon agreed up to a point, saying the damage to the team's image would be minimal - locally.

"I don't think it will make the Ravens any less popular at all here," he said. "The love of pro football is so strong, so entrenched in our local culture, that it's unlikely something like this would have an impact."

The team's national profile is a different issue, said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

To casual fans, Lapchick said, Jamal Lewis' indictment, on the heels of Ray Lewis' case, "kind of makes the Ravens look like they have a culture that has created the possibility of this."

He related the situation "in that regard" to the lurid recruiting scandal at the University of Colorado.

But he also warned that the reality of such a correlation wasn't valid.

"In Colorado's case, the [problematic cultural] image is fair," Lapchick said. "In the Ravens' case, using such broad brush strokes is less fair because you're talking about just two players. Overall, the history of the team is not dramatically out of sync compared to other NFL teams."

Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' vice president of public and community relations, didn't deny that the team's image was, at the very least, rough.

"But I think it's your style of play, too," Byrne said. "When you're carried by defense, you have a certain image. When we won the Super Bowl, Sports Illustrated's cover was 'Baltimore Bullies.' The great Bears teams were the 'Monsters of the Midway.'

"When you're a defensive team that hits hard, you have a certain image. I think we were going to have that whether Ray went through [his trial in] Atlanta or not."

Safety Ed Reed had a similar view of how fans perceive the Ravens.

"They already think a certain way about us. They look at us as the bad guys of the NFL, but we're not bad," he said. "Certain situations present [themselves] and things happen. It happens to all of us. It just so happens that we are in the spotlight.

"We won't rally around being the bad guys," he said. "We'll just play football."

The Ravens have employed their share of players who faced legal problems, including Bam Morris, a repeated drug offender; Ralph Staten, charged with a handgun violation in 1999; and Terrell Suggs, charged in December with felony aggravated assault in Arizona.

But in a 1998 book titled Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL, it was reported that 21 percent of the NFL's players had been charged with "serious crimes." The statistics covered those in uniform during the 1996-97 season.

As Lapchick said, the Ravens are hardly alone.

But no one said the image-making mechanism was fair, and should Jamal Lewis be acquitted, he might have to live with some others' unflattering judgments of him in the wake of his indictment.

"The stigma stays with you, fairly or not," Towson's Nixon said.

Byrne agreed, stating that Ray Lewis still has to confront his past legal problems, even though he has successfully rehabilitated his image, becoming one of the NFL's most prominent faces.

"Your innocence is never completely overcome by the original charge," Byrne said. "Ray has transcended what happened in Atlanta, but he is still asked about it and it still comes up a few times a year."

Theismann doesn't believe even that minimal impact is relevant.

"Ray is the face of the Ravens today, and that face is one of intensity, desire, passion and commitment to excellence," Theismann said. "It's all good, in my opinion."

But in a column posted Thursday on Sports Illustrated's Web site, SI staffer Don Banks wrote that Jamal Lewis' troubles might revive all the negative connotations.

"There's the kind of linkage [between the Lewis stories] that you couldn't make up if you tried," Banks wrote. The new charges "give everyone a reason to conjure up those images of [Ray Lewis] standing trial for murder."

That's not good for the Ravens, Banks wrote.

"It all comes down to how the legal case plays out," Lapchick said. "It could prove to be a temporary situation that is nothing more than a blip, or it could linger and conjure bad images. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."

Sun staff writer Brent Jones contributed to this article.

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