OF ALL the subplots that have enriched the build-up to Super Bowl XLVII, none has divided opinion like Ray Lewis. The so-called “road to redemption” taken by the Baltimore Ravens linebacker has sparked a debate that goes right to the heart of America’s relationship with its sporting heroes.
In New Orleans tonight, the talk will be of the two brothers – Jim and John Harbaugh – who will confront each other as head coaches, as well as the San Francisco 49ers’ attempt to win a record-equalling sixth Super Bowl, but it will also be a time to recognise the last appearance of a player who is retiring after 17 years in the professional game.
So, how are we to view Lewis as he takes his final bow?
A savage brute implicated in a high-profile murder case 13 years ago, when two men were stabbed to death outside an Atlanta nightclub?
Or a reformed character whose 17-year contribution to his sport has been an inspiration?
The 37-year-old NFL icon has undergone an astonishing image rehabilitation since a Super Bowl party in 2000 when he and two others were involved in a brawl that led to the deaths of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar.
Murder charges were filed against Lewis and his two companions. The white suit he was wearing that night has never been found. Baker’s blood was found in his limo.
In exchange for testifying against the co-accused, Lewis pleaded guilty to obstructing the course of justice, admitting that he gave a misleading statement to police the morning after the killings.
As it turned out, his testimony wasn’t enough and the two were acquitted. Lewis received a year’s probation, was fined $250,000 by the NFL and later reached a financial agreement with the bereaved families, which meant that he avoided a civil trial. The case has never been solved.
A year later, the Ravens won the Super Bowl and Lewis was their Most Valuable Player. Although he was excluded from some of the subsequent publicity – including a team photograph on the front of a Wheaties cereal box – Lewis had been given a second chance and, boy, had he seized it.
Since then, Baltimore has taken to its heart the man who gave the city its first Super Bowl since 1971. He has become one of the game’s all-time greatest players, certainly at his position, and given every one of his 17 professional seasons to the same franchise. The inspirational speeches, the pre-game “dances” – check out his entrance this evening – and his intimidating presence on the pitch are all part of the same intoxicating package.
More significant has been his work off the pitch. He became a community leader, a mentor for young players. He set up a foundation for disadvantaged youth. He found God and talked about a career in preaching. The jersey with his name on it is one of the NFL’s biggest sellers. On retiring, he is expected to become a special adviser to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, with whom he was recently photographed in a symbolic hug.
Many have no issue with his success. After all, nobody really knows what happened that night in Atlanta. Who is to say that the offence he may or may not have committed does not deserve forgiveness? Is all the good that he has done to be interred with his bones on account of an unproven crime?
Others won’t let it lie. After the Ravens beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, the wife of the Patriots’ wide receiver Wes Welker wrote on her Facebook page: “Proud of my husband and the Pats. By the way, if anyone is bored, please go to Ray Lewis’ Wikipedia page. 6 kids 4 wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay. What a hall of fame player! A true role model!”
She later offered an apology, which Lewis accepted, but the point – about the hypocrisy of hero-worship in American sport – had been made. The country may be right to recognise his 13 Pro Bowl appearances and his numerous player of the year awards but, in the context of what happened before, should it go so far as to make him a pillar of the establishment?
Corporate America seems to be saying yes but, if they are honest with themselves, they will admit that it is not because they are Christians. It is because he is a marketable asset, like Tiger Woods, another transgressor in whom they have kept faith. Lance Armstrong is unlikely to get off so lightly, given that his career is finished and his earning potential all but gone.
In the case of Lewis, the media have helped. Until last week, when journalists new to his story have descended on New Orleans, sports reporters have hung on his every word, partly because he is important to their profession and partly because it would be unrealistic to hark back to 13 years ago in every press conference, every match report.
At the Super Bowl media day last week, there was only one question on that theme, but Lewis brushed it aside, as he always has. “This is not the appropriate time for that,” he said. “The sympathy I have for that family, what me and my family have endured because of all of that... nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions... I’d rather not speak about that today.”
He also denied recent claims in Sports Illustrated that he had used deer-antler spray, a performance-enhancing drug, to aid his recovery from a torn triceps injury earlier in the season. If the allegation turns out to be true, maybe that, more than the events of 2000, will change the way he is perceived. Those who argue that the character should be separated from the athlete, that the moral has no bearing on the physical, could no longer accept in isolation his success on the pitch.
Perhaps the concept of a hero needs to be redefined. It is not, after all, the same as a role model. To be a hero, virtue is required on the field of play. To be a role model, virtue is required off it. The hero is someone we cannot be, the role model someone we can. Or, as one academic put it, “the essence of a hero is to be unique and therefore inimitable”. Lewis is certainly that.