So maybe in one way, the Super Bowl is a bit like a Jewish Holiday. You start celebrating the night before. For the big game, it’s actually the week before, or technically the week before the week before, to be exact. That’s where we are right now, which puts us squarely in the thick of unnecessary hype. So if you don’t like what you hear right now, just wait. Because you’ll hate it even more the 500th time 10 days from now.
The stories are never really about sports. There’s only so much anyone wants to hear about a sporting event, even a manufactured gem like the Super Bowl. The stories are about people. The athletes, the coaches, the owners, the fans – the sporting narrative is a human one, and we will hear the live and trials of everyone from head coaches to the beer guy at the stadium, all part of the long form story that makes two weeks plus the four hour pre-game show drag like an unedited DVD of Pearl Harbor.
And the dominant story line of this volume, with all deference to the Harbaugh brothers, is Ray Lewis, the Baltimore linebacker who will play the final game of his hall of fame career on Super Bowl Sunday. Surely, for his part, it’s a dramatic ending to a career that was remarkably so. Lewis is known and, in Baltimore at least, beloved for being one of the most intense, game altering, bone crushing defensive players in the history of the game. He’s amongst the few living household gridiron megastars that doesn’t throw or catch or otherwise run with the football. And having recovered from an injury this season to play out the string to his retirement, the seemingly storybook ending is center stage for the world to see.
Yet that’s only part of the story. Most football fans also know Ray Lewis as the violent guy who was indicted on murder charges stemming from a large brawl outside a nightclub after the Super Bowl in 2000. The charges were later dropped in exchange for his testimony against other people in his party, while Lewis plea bargained for obstruction of justice charges for changing his testimony throughout the process. While ultimately everyone was acquitted, two people remain dead, and Lewis settled with family of both the deceased. It is, ultimately, one of the most uncomfortable and potentially dissonant realities in modern sport.
Lewis is also known as the man who’s since given himself to God, preached to churches and followers nationwide. A man who talks openly of love and redemption, who praises the Lord before, during, and after pretty much every game. He’s Tim Tebow with an edge, someone who seemingly instills belief in the possibility of reform since that awful night in 2000. He’s giving and charitable, both of himself and his riches.
But yet, as Wes Welker’s uncensored wife wrote crassly on facebook after New England’s loss to the Ravens last week, Lewis is also the father of six children with four women and seemingly repeats many of the same misdeeds he repeatedly denounces of his own father. He’s absent and self-centered as anyone in that position must be.
So there’s the abridged story of Ray Lewis. The full version spans much longer than even the Super Bowl pregame. And now, we will all be asked to choose a side. To love or denounce him, call him martyr or murderer, hero or villain. All that within the context of the violent capitalistic entertainment complex that is modern American football.
So if you feel compelled to take sides, I’d give you one piece of advice: don’t. Categorizing Lewis as either saint or sinner is like trying to describe the flavor of the sun. He is, like many in this world, neither and both. Yet his place in the hero complex of sport makes us try to type cast him as an archetype. But just because he can run and hit better than anyone in history doesn’t mean he lives his entire live in superlatives. He’s been bad and good, and to be honest, few except Lewis himself know the depths of either. People of Baltimore seem to disagree, which is why he’s the toast of the town in his farewell game. You’ll hear about that love affair at some point before the game, if not 10 or 20, about how he’s a man of faith and devotion. You might even want to believe it. Just don’t feel compelled to.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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