With the NFL expected to discipline Baltimore Ravens tailback Jamal Lewis, his representatives are making plans to mount a challenge that will maintain that the league lacks jurisdiction over conduct that occurred before a player has signed his first NFL contract, sources familiar with discussions said yesterday.
Under the terms of a plea bargain in his drug conspiracy case, Lewis has agreed to plead guilty in U.S. District Court in Atlanta tomorrow to a charge of using a cell phone to facilitate a drug transaction, a source with knowledge of the negotiations and an official within the Ravens organization said.
A suspension by the NFL is expected to follow and most likely would take effect Oct. 24, when the Ravens play the Buffalo Bills. Lewis would be eligible to play in the Ravens' game Sunday night against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.
"It's our understanding that it's very unlikely that there will be any judgment with regards to what the league chooses to do that would impact this game," Ravens Coach Brian Billick said of the Redskins game. "So Jamal will be back Thursday night. We'll catch him up very quickly. With what we'll be able to get done Friday and Saturday, we're comfortable with the fact that he'll be able to go out and perform on Sunday in Washington."
Lewis, who was not available to comment, is expected to receive a sentence of four months in a minimum security prison, two months of house confinement and 1,000 hours of community service, according to the source within the Ravens organization, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The agreement requires the approval of U.S. District Judge Orinda Evans.
Those in Lewis's camp know it would be difficult to overturn any ensuing league disciplinary measure because an appeal would be made to the league rather than to an arbitrator, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the NFL has not yet decided what action it will take.
A drug-related conviction would count as a violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Lewis has violated the policy at least twice previously and, in similar cases, another violation generally would result in a four-game suspension without pay. However, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has discretion in the matter.
Attorneys on Lewis's side of the case, including those at the NFL Players Association, have begun to consider the issue of whether Lewis can be suspended for a crime allegedly committed in the summer of 2000, after he was drafted by the Ravens but before he signed his rookie contract, sources said. One person familiar with the discussions said yesterday that it is "an issue that's highly relevant to the case'' and indicated that Lewis likely would, on those grounds, appeal any suspension by the league.
An NFL source said yesterday that the league is aware of the issue and it would be a factor in deliberations about possible disciplinary measures. The source said that Lewis's clean record since he was suspended for four games without pay in the 2001 season for violating the substance-abuse policy also would be considered. An NFL spokesman declined to comment on any issue relating to possible disciplinary action.
Under league rules, appeals of disciplinary action imposed by the NFL are heard and decided by Tagliabue or someone appointed by him, often league counsel Jeff Pash, dimming optimism by Lewis's associates that an appeal would be successful.
Asked whether he was optimistic about an appeal, Billick said: "We'll just see how the league deals with that. I don't want to characterize it one way or the other. That's for the league to determine."
Lewis initially maintained his innocence after he and childhood friend Angelo Jackson were charged with brokering a cocaine deal in conversations with a government informant in Atlanta in the summer of 2000. Lewis's trial was scheduled to begin Nov. 1.
"I would suggest that you all wait and see what the circumstances are before you rush to judgment or comment because there are some particular circumstances of which I think you'll see why we hold firm to our belief in Jamal and believe in him," Billick said. "You'll see why our support is so strong for Jamal in that this clearly was a 20-year-old young man, a junior in college five years ago, that had a serious lapse in judgment, but not to the degree that people are portending now."
Powell reported from Owings Mills, Md.