ATLANTA – NFL fans will never know the inside of this courtroom, with its radish-colored carpeting and hyper-varnished wooden benches. Nor will they see repeated video snaps of Jamal Lewis ducking out the crumbling cement dock of Atlanta's U.S. District Court building.
Instead, the Baltimore Ravens running back met his legal problems Thursday the same style he plays – head on, absorbing punishment.
In an expected anti-climax, Lewis cut a deal with federal prosecutors, pleading guilty to a lesser charge and agreeing to be summoned for testimony in a case against Angelo Jackson, the friend whom Lewis says he brokered a drug deal for in 2000.
For admitting his role as a facilitator in Jackson's cocaine purchase from an FBI informant, Lewis will serve four months in federal prison after the NFL season, spend two months in a supervised halfway house and perform 500 hours of community service. He also faces a suspension by the NFL in the coming days.
This time next year, Lewis will have been in and out of prison and served his suspension, and the damage to his reputation will already be on the mend. There won't be any daily updates on pre-trial proceedings like Kobe Bryant, or images of Lewis in an orange jumpsuit like Ray Lewis. All there will be is the momentary embarrassment of leaving a courtroom flanked by his lawyers and the refusal to speak with reporters.
"I made a mistake four years ago when I was 20 years old, which I'm paying heavily for, which I had to suffer the consequences, which I'm willing to do," Lewis said in a prepared statement.
For now, the price he'll pay to the NFL remains to be seen, though two league officials said Thursday that a suspension will likely come swiftly, possibly by the middle of next week. However, there is some question as to the extent the NFL can punish Lewis for a crime committed while he was a junior in college. There is zero precedent for the league to follow in this case, though Lewis' offseason jail sentence makes it a near certainty he will be sanctioned by the NFL.
"Whatever the decision (on suspension), we will not protest it in any way," Ravens vice president Kevin Byrne said. "Whatever the commissioner's decision, we'll accept it. … Whether that's a week, two weeks, the rest of the season, we'll accept it."
A league source said the NFL has been versed on the details of Lewis' case – including his decision to plead guilty to a lesser charge – for almost three weeks. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and others were apparently filled in when Lewis' attorney, Edward Garland, flew to New York and sat down with them within the last month. During that meeting, Garland maintained his belief that Lewis could go to trial and be acquitted of drug conspiracy and cocaine charges, but admitted he was advising Lewis to take a plea bargain rather than putting his career in the hands of a jury.
It was that advice which caused Lewis to change the not-guilty plea he entered in August, after being indicted by a federal grand jury. In the plea, Lewis admits to using his cell phone while violating a federal law, and introducing Jackson to a man who turned out to be an FBI informant, with the purpose of "a possible purchase of cocaine" by Jackson.
"We understand he made a mistake, and he understands he made a mistake," Byrne said. "He made it when he was a 20-year-old man, and now he's embarrassed by it."
The embarrassment will stretch on a bit further in the coming months. While Garland said Thursday that Lewis "had simply agreed" to testify in Jackson's case if called upon, that testimony is almost certain to happen, as it did when Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis testified against two friends in a highly publicized murder trial in 2000. And any suspension is likely to have serious implications on the Ravens, who have two unproven running backs to take Lewis' place.
The league's leading rusher last season with 2,066 yards, Lewis has 378 yards and four touchdowns in four games this season. By comparison, backups Chester Taylor and Musa Smith have rushed the ball 126 times in five combined seasons.
"If he is going to be suspended this season, it's only fair to the coaching staff that they know right away, so they can prepare," Byrne said.
Asked what would be a fair punishment by the league, Byrne smiled.
"I've been there before," he said. "And I'm not even going to get into it."