Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis pleaded guilty to a drug offense in a federal court in Atlanta yesterday and will be suspended two games by the NFL barring any last-minute snags, according to a league source. The suspension will begin after the Ravens face the Washington Redskins on Sunday night.
Lewis, 25, pleaded guilty to using a cell phone in violation of federal law to facilitate a drug trafficking crime over four years ago. He will be sentenced to four months in a minimum security prison and two months in a halfway house, to be served after the completion of the regular season. He also will be required to perform 500 hours of community service. Judge Orinda Evans set a sentencing date of Jan. 26, which falls in the middle of the playoffs.
"I made a mistake four years ago, when I was 20 years old, that I am paying heavily for," Lewis said outside of the courthouse in Atlanta, according to an Associated Press report.
The NFL is expected to announce the two-game suspension today. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello would not comment on the specifics of potential league discipline yesterday, saying only that "we will review the court documents from [Thursday's] proceedings and announce a decision on league discipline as soon as possible, perhaps as early as" today.
Since Lewis has five days to appeal the league's decision, he still is eligible to play in the Ravens' game against the Washington Redskins on Sunday night. He will miss the Ravens' Oct. 24 game against Buffalo and Oct. 31 game in Philadelphia.
According to the league's drug policy, a player is subject to discipline of up to and including suspension without pay for four games for the first drug-related violation of law. However, there are extenuating circumstances, since the incident took place in the summer of 2000, after Lewis had been drafted but before he signed a contract.
Lewis's attorney, Ed Garland, said that Lewis would accept any punishment from NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. When asked whether the players' union would challenge any suspension levied by the league, Garland said that the union was free to do so.
According to the league source, Lewis's attorneys were working behind the scenes to vigorously fight any suspension of longer than two games, despite their public stance. Lewis's side was prepared to challenge severe discipline from the league based on the argument that the league does not have jurisdiction over a player who is not under contract.
But it appears he will drop his objection because of the shorter suspension. The source said that while the players' association has the right to appeal the two-game suspension, a successful appeal would be difficult without Lewis's support.
Lewis and a childhood friend, Angelo Jackson, were charged with brokering a cocaine deal in conversations with a government informant in Atlanta in 2000. Their trial was set to begin Nov. 1. Charges against Jackson are pending, and according to the plea agreement, Lewis has agreed to testify at Jackson's trial, if called by the prosecution.
Ravens President Dick Cass issued a statement expressing the team's support for Lewis, the team's leading rusher.
"Jamal did not -- and did not attempt to -- buy, sell or possess drugs. He had no financial stake in any drug transaction," Cass said in the statement. "We in the Ravens organization have the advantage of knowing Jamal. The Jamal we all know would not make this mistake today. We will continue to support and believe in him. He has admitted his mistake and is prepared to move on. We are prepared to move on with him. We hope that he will be part of our organization for years to come."
The Ravens practiced without Lewis yesterday, but Coach Brian Billick said that should not affect Lewis's preparation for Sunday's game at FedEx Field. Backups Chester Taylor and Musa Smith took the snaps at running back, and they will be called upon when Lewis is suspended. For now, the Ravens are trying to ignore the distractions and focus on preparing for the Redskins.
"The good thing is, there will be less distraction in terms of the ambiguity for when this is going to go down," Billick said. "He's been through this all last year, all through training camp, all the way up until now. I don't know that it's any more of a distraction now than it has been. He seems very, very focused. The team is focused with it."
"It's a tough week, but it's nothing we can't handle," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "We have great structure, great coaching, and we have professionals here. Jamal is a strong person. He can take care of himself, and he has 100 percent support from his teammates."
Maske contributed to this report from Owings Mills, Md.