- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2000

BALTIMORE As the murder trial of Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis continued in Atlanta yesterday, NFL owners met in the shadow of the Ravens' PSINet Stadium to discuss an enhanced code of player conduct.

"We're concerned about player behavior off the field," said Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown. "It's on the front burner now and I think it will be for some time to come."

Lewis, who is charged in two slayings that occurred during a brawl after a post-Super Bowl party in January, isn't the only NFL player in serious trouble. Receiver Rae Carruth, awaiting trial in the slaying of his pregnant girlfriend, was released by the Carolina Panthers last season. Green Bay Packers tight end Mark Chmura was charged this month with sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl.

"Ray's guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Ravens owner Art Modell. "I don't exonerate Ray from being surrounded by the wrong people. That will change, I promise you. I'm convinced … everybody in the organization is convinced that Ray is innocent, but it's not for us to judge. If Ray's cleared, I hope he plays this year, but that's up to [NFL commissioner Paul] Tagliabue."

The commissioner surprisingly declined to meet with reporters yesterday but is scheduled to do so after the meetings conclude today.

"We're not going to bury our heads in the sand," said Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney. "Serious things happen, but I don't think things have gotten worse. We're part of society. Is society getting worse? I don't think it is."

Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams said the increasing salaries now averaging almost $800,000 have changed the game.

"When you have guys making the salaries they make, there are more opportunities for them to get in trouble," Adams said.

Still, NFL labor relations chief Harold Henderson said apart from the Lewis and Carruth "aberrations," off-field violence has declined in recent years. Yesterday, the owners altered the NFL's "personal conduct" policy to also cover nonviolent crime like racketeering, money laundering and car theft. The league is also asking its teams to hire full-time directors for security and for career counseling. Henderson said about six teams have first-rate player-assistance programs with another 17 or so having solid operations and eight "not there yet."

Tampa Bay is one of Henderson's six model teams.

"I don't think the players coming in today are any different," said Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy, an NFL defensive back from 1977-80. "We had our share of incidents when I played. The difference is that we had a lot more guys who had been in an organization for a long time and could pass on the Steelers way of doing things. Today [because of free agency and the salary cap], you don't have that as much. And the younger guys are making more money and are a target for a lot more things."

However, Henderson admitted that Baltimore and Carolina, who employed Lewis and Carruth, run two of the better programs.

Owners also discussed realignment and revised scheduling formula that will be necessary when Houston becomes the 32nd franchise in 2002. The transfer of the San Francisco 49ers from Eddie DeBartolo to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, was unanimously approved. Early retirement benefits were approved for assistant coaches, an estimated 100 of whom are expected at a symposium today in Hunt Valley, Md., north of Baltimore. Coaches, coordinators and officials met there today to discuss rules changes being implemented for this season.

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