Sunseria Keith had been looking forward to Pro Bowl week for a long time, so she was really excited on Jan. 31 as she checked into the Ihilani Resort and Spa outside Honolulu. Her son, Baltimore Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis, would join her in a few hours. He'd be flying in from Atlanta, where he'd attended the Super Bowl.
A phone in Keith's hotel room rang. "Mama," Lewis's familiar voice crackled into her ear, "I've got to talk to you." It was the second conversation between the two that day. Earlier Lewis had told Keith that police had questioned him in connection with the stabbing deaths of two men early that morning outside a nightclub in the Buck-head section of Atlanta, but he'd assured her that everything was fine. Now everything wasn't fine. Lewis was phoning from a friend's house outside Atlanta, and police had shown up at the house to arrest him.
Lewis dropped the phone, but the line stayed connected. This is what Keith says she heard next: "Hey, don't do that! Don't put those handcuffs on me, man! I didn't murder nobody! I didn't do nothing! You got the wrong guy!"
Lewis never picked the receiver back up. He was taken to the Atlanta City Detention Center, and as of Monday was the only suspect being held for the stabbing deaths that took place near the posh Cobalt Lounge. An Atlanta police affidavit charged that the 24-year-old Lewis, "along with others," killed Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, both from nearby Decatur, "by punching, beating and stabbing them with a sharp object." Citing information that Lewis wasn't involved in the crimes, Lewis's lawyers last Friday tried unsuccessfully to convince Fulton County district attorney Paul Howard that there was just cause to release Lewis on bail. It appeared that Lewis would be in jail until at least Feb. 14, when a bond hearing is scheduled.
The memory of the aborted phone conversation still haunts Keith. "They have nothing on Ray," she told SI last Thursday night at her Atlanta hotel. "Nothing. There's no doubt in my mind that he's sitting in jail for what somebody else did. All he did was be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Lewis, the Ravens' biggest name, could claim that he has been wrongly accused on several occasions. Four other times in the last six years, dating back to his college days at Miami, he has been cited by police as a possible participant in a brawl or named in incident reports of battery or charged with assault. He has never been convicted of a crime, however; in fact, he has never even been tried.
Still, his arrest came as another blow to the image-conscious NFL. Lewis is the league's second player to be charged with murder in two months. Carolina Panthers wideout Rae Carruth is in a Charlotte jail awaiting trial for killing his pregnant girlfriend on Nov. 16. That's the worst entry on the NFL's police blotter of a season, but there's more. New York Jets tackle Jumbo Elliott awaits trial on charges that last July he assaulted a man and conducted himself in a disorderly way in a Long Beach, N.Y., bar. A former Elliott teammate, Matt O'Dwyer, allegedly kicked out a police-car window after being arrested in the same incident; he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and third-degree assault. St. Louis Rams linebacker Leonard Little was suspended for the season's first eight games after killing a woman in a DWI accident in October 1998; he had served 90 days and is on four years probation. In October, Indianapolis Colts defensive back Steve Muhammad was charged with two counts of battery against his wife, Nicole, who was pregnant. She died 10 days after his arrest as a result of injuries sustained in a car accident. In November, Buffalo Bills wideout Jeremy McDaniel and tackle Marcus Spriggs were charged with sexual assault on two off-duty police officers. In December, Miami Dolphins running back Cecil Collins was arrested on two counts of burglary in Davie, Fla. He sits in a Florida jail, facing possible time in Louisiana for violating the terms of his probation resulting from a failed 1998 drug test.
Now, when it should be celebrating its best Super Bowl ever, the NFL is dealing with more questions about the character of its players. In the wake of Lewis's arrest on murder charges, Kansas City Chiefs wideout-return man Tamarick Vanover was named 13 times and recently retired Chiefs running back Bam Morris once in an affidavit filed by the FBI in connection with an alleged drug-distribution ring. No charges have been filed against either man. What's more, Carolina Panthers running back Fred Lane was arrested last Thursday in Jackson, Term., on drug and weapons charges.
Last week one longtime NFL head coach predicted that the league is likely to see an even greater number of players in trouble with the law in the years ahead. "If you think this generation is bad, wait until the next one," said the coach, who asked not to be identified. "It used to be we knocked out two or three players in a draft for bad character. Now it's 25 or 30. So many of these guys aren't ready, with their backgrounds, to handle money and fame."
Adds Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sports in Society, "I used to counsel young athletes about balancing athletics and academics. Now I counsel them on life and death. There's no sanctuary left—not in schools, not in sports."