Ray Lewis was accused of murder. Latrell Sprewell choked his coach. Muhammad Ali refused to go to war and was labeled a traitor.

All rebounded to attain greater stature than before.

Ben Johnson was stripped of a gold medal days after he set a sprint record. Tonya Harding conspired to have a rival figure skater clubbed in the knee, and never seriously contended again. Mike Tyson was convicted of rape and went to prison for three years.

None ever quite emerged from the darkness.

Some of history's greatest athletes have fallen from grace, and there's little telling whether they will rise again. This is the uncertain reality faced by Rafael Palmeiro as he prepares to return from suspension for a positive steroid test, which tarnished a legacy he had just cemented by getting his 3,000th hit.

The athletes who endure best, said marketers and agents, are those who address their troubles head-on and return to the field.

"Tell it early, tell it all and tell it yourself," said Lanny Davis, who advised the Clinton White House on media crises. "The rules are the same whether you're a president, a corporate CEO or a baseball player."

Davis said apologizing works on the most basic human level and shouldn't be much different for a superstar than for a little boy who has broken his grandpa's favorite porcelain bird.

"It seems counterintuitive, but people want to forgive," he said. "If [Palmeiro] tells them what he's done and he does it himself, he will be forgiven."

"So far," Davis added, "he's broken every rule."

Legal issues (such as possible perjury before Congress) can get in the way of a clean apology, said longtime Baltimore agent Ron Shapiro.

"But if you play games or have your representatives continue to deflect the issue, the public will continue viewing you in a negative light," he said.

Others said Palmeiro's fall might be particularly hard, because, though he has never been a huge celebrity, he has always been known as a clean-living, hard-working, modest man. Few seemed to doubt him in March, when he wagged his finger in the air and denied steroid allegations before a congressional panel.

"If you've built an identity in the sport on being a goody guy, you just have farther to fall," said Peter Carlisle, an Oregon-based agent who has represented numerous Olympians, including Michael Phelps.

Carlisle helped advise Phelps after the 19-year-old swimmer was charged with drunken driving in November.

But Carlisle said steroids might be a different beast in crisis management. "It was a large, abstract issue for so long, that it's just not a cut-and-dried problem," he said. "It's a complex problem that goes beyond the individual."

Politics have muddled the matter, agreed Shapiro, who has represented Orioles stars from Brooks Robinson to Cal Ripken.

"What makes it different is that it's not only a legal issue, but it's been made a political issue," said Shapiro, who took care to say he's not passing judgment on Palmeiro. "That makes the athlete much more vulnerable."

People in the political game, he said, "will keep stirring the pot and stirring the pot."