Patrick Broadwater wonders, amid the adulation being heaped on Ray Lewis as he retires, if it’s right to forget what he might have done off the field.
Forget for a second, as it seems many already have, that last Sunday’s playoff matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens promised to be a pretty good football game. Forget that the teams ranked No. 4 and 5 in the AFC standings had combined for 21 wins and more than 750 points. That one, Indy, came in hot, with four wins in its last five games, while the other stumbled to the finish, going 1-4 over that same span. Or that the winner of the game would move one step closer to representing the conference on the NFL’s biggest stage.
Forget that Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano, a former Ravens assistant, missed 12 games this season while being treated for leukemia and was making only his second appearance on the sideline since then. Or that Colts rookie QB Andrew Luck had met preseason expectations and was making the first of what may be many playoff starts. Or even the unpleasant reality that Baltimore was hosting the Colts, a conceit that would have boggled the mind of a Baltimore football fan three decades earlier. That is, before the franchise of Unitas decamped for Indiana and left a gaping hole in the city that Art Modell filled by robbing Cleveland of its beloved Browns.Forget all that, because none of it really mattered. This game was about Ray Lewis.
The Ravens middle linebacker announced last week that he will retire at the end of this season, ending a 17-year career that ranks among the best of any defender in NFL history. Lewis hadn’t played since he tore his right triceps on Oct. 14th, but he was his usual self Sunday, making 13 tackles in Baltimore’s 24-9 victory.
From the moment he made his retirement public, there has been an outpouring of affection and respect for Lewis. Fans, players and commentators have lauded the ferocity and intensity he brought to the field each week, his leadership, his spirituality, his athleticism and even his goofiness. Writers from such esteemed publications as the New Yorker and New York Times recounted their fuzzy memories of Lewis, and on game day, the cameras never left him, capturing every aspect of his performance, including his many dance interludes. Even head coach John Harbaugh got caught up in the hoopla, putting Lewis on the field for the last play of the game when the Ravens offense lined up in their victory formation. The game’s lasting image may very well be Lewis’s gyration as time expired and teammates rushed over to join in a celebration of him while a lone cameraman maneuvered to within inches of the scrum to capture every last speck of emotion for the TV audience.
So with a win in his final Baltimore appearance, Lewis’ farewell tour will make at least more stop, this weekend in Denver, before he takes on a new career as a studio analyst for ESPN.
Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens both debuted in the NFL in 1996. Lewis was a 1st round pick, 26th overall by the Ravens. He excelled immediately. In his first four seasons, he twice led the league in tackles. The Ravens, led by Lewis, quickly established a reputation as a defense-first team. They never finished above .500 in those early days, but in 2000 Lewis and the Ravens defense were historically good. So good that even with a marginal offense led by Trent Dilfer they cruised through the playoffs and dominated the NY Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. Lewis was MVP of the 34-7 win, cementing his reputation as one of the game’s greats.
Exactly one year before that crowning moment, however, Lewis and two friends were reportedly involved in a double homicide outside of an Atlanta nightclub. Lewis was indicted after being spotted fleeing in his limo. His white suit was never found. Lewis accepted a plea deal, reducing his offense to obstructing justice, and testified against his friends. No one was convicted in the murders, but Lewis did make restitution to the families of the victims to avoid a civil suit.
Many choose to forget this tragic event or give Lewis a pass because of his stellar public record in the years that followed. After all, he was not found guilty and neither were his acquaintances. But, while that is undisputedly true, it’s much harder to make the case that Lewis was in no way responsible for the deaths of these two men. The only ones who know for sure what happened that night aren’t talking.
We have all celebrated imperfect heroes. Sometimes we are keenly aware of their faults and peccadilloes and choose to look away. Other times we are blindsided after the fact. Sometimes we forgive, but we never forget. We may joke callously about some of these indiscretions—a hit and run accident, drug or DUI arrest, marital infidelities—as a player grows, somewhat clumsily, to accept his fame.
But where do we draw the line? How bad of an act is too bad? Could you love OJ Simpson again? Ben Roethlisberger? Kobe Bryant? How about Lance Armstrong? Alex Rodriguez?
Each of us has to look inside ourselves and determine whether any athlete is worthy of our affection, respect, time or attention. But doing so can be a tricky proposition rife with conflicting emotions, hypocritical allowances and troubling questions: How do we reconcile the dangers of hero worship with our own belief in the greatness of sport? At what point does a transgression become too big to overlook? How long must that individual wear a scarlet letter for his sins and can he ever wash away the stain of imperfection? Which incidents do we rate more severe than others? How seriously do we take unproven charges? What if the person makes an effort to change and never gets in trouble again? Does his onfield performance help to make people forget? And exactly how good does that performance have to be to make a difference?
The answers to these questions, and many others, are intensely personal. They cut to the core of how we were raised, what we believe and what team we root for. One size does not fit all. The best we can do is recognize that there is no universal feeling that we all must have and acknowledge that greatness in any one aspect of one life does not equate to the greatness of a whole man.
Make your own moral decisions. Choose what’s important to you. Draw your own line in the sand.
I know where mine is.
AP Photo/Nick Wass