Ray Lewis no longer is invincible. And though no one can predict how that might affect him psychologically, it might be the best thing that could have happened, both for his career and the Ravens' future.
Lewis won't be going to jail. He won't be suspended by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. But he didn't simply walk away from charges of double murder yesterday in Atlanta.
Under conditions of his plea bargain, he admitted to obstruction of justice, accepted 12 months' probation and agreed to testify against the two remaining co-defendants and others who might have been involved in the crimes.
He also promised to pay one-third of the prosecution's fees in bringing the case against him, an amount that could bring his legal costs into the $1 million range, according to sources close to the case.
Tagliabue could have suspended Lewis under the NFL's new personal-conduct policy, which lists obstruction of justice under "prohibited conduct." But, for once, Tagliabue's distaste for bold action served Baltimore's interests. Considering all that Lewis endured, perhaps a fine was punishment enough.
"Whatever action has to be taken has already been taken against Ray," Ravens owner Art Modell said yesterday. "He suffered through four months of an ordeal. If every player who is charged with a misdemeanor in the NFL was suspended, we'd be playing with four-man rosters."
Which, of course, is the entire point - and the league's problem.
Lewis' biggest concern now might be a fear of retribution from those he could implicate with his testimony. But his attorney, Ed Garland, already is distancing the three-time Pro Bowl linebacker from the murderers, whoever they might be.
"Anyone who did that was no friend of Ray Lewis," Garland said.
Chances are, Lewis' testimony will be no more illuminating than any of the other witnesses'. If he truly feared retribution, he would have rejected the plea-bargain offer, avoided taking the stand and waited for the jury to clear his name.
But that's not what happened.
By admitting to a level of culpability, Lewis took the first step toward putting this mess behind him. He might never have attained that measure of closure if he simply had been found not guilty of the murders of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar.
One-sided as the trial appeared, most of the country didn't see how flimsy the prosecution's case was against Lewis. A not-guilty verdict, or even a mistrial, likely would not have removed the taint surrounding his name.
Some might have accused Lewis of buying justice. Others might have speculated that he indeed participated in the crime. The questions would have persisted, not just for Lewis, but also for the Ravens.
But now, the case against him is closed.
Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. A criminal charge went on his record, though he could move to expunge it after his probation. If he doesn't learn his lesson, he never will.
"Any ordeal like this makes a person grow in many ways," Garland said. "I think he is a stronger, better person for having gone through it. ...
"He has learned that you cannot assume that someone around you when you're a star and a celebrity is going to conduct themselves properly. I think in the future Ray Lewis will protect himself from the wrong company."
Lewis, 25, might have adopted that posture even if his trial had gone to verdict, with the outcome that everyone anticipated. Then again, he might have become even more cavalier, knowing that he beat a double-murder rap.
If Lewis was out at 4 a.m. the day after the Super Bowl with "the wrong people," then it's unwise to assume that he would have exercised the proper judgment.
"You would certainly hope that's not the perspective," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "But you're talking about young people. As I've said many times, youth is wasted on the young."
Well, for the next 12 months, Lewis will need to be on his best behavior. And NFL officials from Billick to Tagliabue will now point to the Lewis case as Exhibit A when instructing players to be more careful about their associations.
"Ray and I already have talked about this," Billick said. "We will use that as a learning tool as many times as we have to. Hopefully, because it involves one of your own, those lessons become that much more ingrained and graphic to you."
Added Ravens quarterback Tony Banks: "Every time something like this hits home, it brings you closer together. Everybody feels a little vulnerable. You end up looking to each other. We're all in the same position. We're all athletes making a substantial amount of money to play this game, so we're vulnerable."
Such logic is irrefutable, but it also was irrefutable before Lewis ever visited the Cobalt Lounge. Indeed, the Ravens and their fans probably are kidding themselves if they believe the players suddenly will turn into Boy Scouts.
If anything, the Ravens might be even more vulnerable in social settings; barroom wise guys, knowing of the players' desire to stay out of trouble, might be even more tempted to provoke them.
Still, every player in the NFL now knows that misdeeds carry consequences - even for a star linebacker and even for a crime that Lewis' attorneys rationalized by saying that he panicked under police pressure.
Billick spoke of potential "demons" Lewis might need to confront, and Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said: "It's still going to surface up. The thing I've told Ray is, if he has a bad game, it's always going to go back to that. ... He can't let that affect him."
It's difficult to imagine that Lewis will, difficult to imagine him being anything less than a great player. Heck, he might be even more driven after this ordeal. Billick said that before the trial started, he had never seen Lewis in better condition.
If No. 52 doesn't learn from all this, he's hopeless.
He no longer is invincible.
He couldn't just walk away.