You hardly know where to turn anymore. Whose story do you believe? Who is worthy of trust? Where do we look for virtue in sports nowadays? Whom can we hold up as a champion?
Lance Armstrong admits to doping. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds get snubbed by the Hall of Fame for steroids. Manti Te’o is still trying to explain his imaginary girlfriend. Junior Seau’s family blames his suicide on the NFL’s culture of violence and concussions from repeated blows to the head.
On Monday, I’ll travel to cover the Super Bowl in New Orleans. That city’s former mayor, Ray Nagin, was recently indicted on 21 counts of corruption in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It is also the home to the NFL bounty scandal, which rocked the Saints and exposed the violent underbelly of the league this past season.
There’s one thing I can promise: I won’t be party to any celebrations of Ray Lewis, who has announced he will retire after leading the Ravens against the Niners in next Sunday’s big game.
Lewis has had a sensational 17-year career. He might be the best linebacker ever to play. He’s a certain Hall of Famer. That doesn’t make his presence in the Super Bowl a redemption song, a validation of Lewis as some noble warrior who triumphed over adversity.
Winning doesn’t equal virtue. You’d think we would have learned that by now. But Americans are so desperate to believe, so eager to watch their heroes overcome their past mistakes, that they confuse physical achievement with character.
I feel the same way I did two years ago before the Super Bowl, when I publicly rooted against Ben Roethlisberger because he had been charged with sexual assault twice in the space of nine months. Big Ben’s story was being spun as a redemption tale, too.
Yes, Lewis has been one of the great athletic leaders. He has done significant charitable work, given thousands to various causes. He is a revered figure in Baltimore, a man who apparently found God and has been a father to his six children with four different women.
But nothing can change the reality of Jan. 30, 2000, when Lewis was involved in the stabbing deaths of two men outside a bar in suburban Atlanta at 4 a.m. after a Super Bowl party.
The killings remain unsolved. Lewis, who gave false information to the police and instructed his friends to keep quiet the night of the murders, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice in exchange for his own fumbling testimony.
It took a jury less than five hours to find his two pals, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, not guilty of the murders.
Lewis later settled civil suits with the families of the two victims, Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker, for what was estimated at a combined $2 million. Some say let it go. The killings took place 13 years ago. Why resurrect the sordid details this week at the big game?
Sure, we can simply nod our heads and smile when Lewis goes into his preening, self-aggrandizing act during introductions. Go along with the show, right? Then sit back and snicker through the oh-so-clever parade of $4 million TV commercials.
Sorry, but when I see close-ups of Lewis, I won’t be able to shake the image of Priscilla Lollar standing in an Akron cemetery in our Buffalo News video last Wednesday, crying as she visits her son Richard’s grave for the first time.
I’ll imagine the voice of Jacinth Baker’s uncle, Greg Wilson, telling our Tim Graham about his contempt for Lewis and the family’s unending pain and resentment over the fact that Baker’s killer went free.
Where is the justice for these people? Are they supposed to “let it go”, because it has been 13 long years? Lewis has said the families will never know the real truth. Well, that’s because he was complicit in covering up the truth after the crimes.
It has to be worse for the families to know that Lewis has at times painted himself as a victim. He has talked about being persecuted and crucified. He had a jailhouse conversion after the murders. Before last week’s AFC title game, he shared a verse from Isaiah:
“No weapon forged against you will prevail.”
Even this many years after the killings, it’s amazing to hear Lewis talk about weapons being used against him.
“Guess what,” Greg Wilson told Tim Graham. “Nobody’s forming any weapons against you. You formed your own. You and those 11 other people in that limousine formed a weapon with the lies, with the cover-up, with the money they spent to make sure he got out of that.”
The truth was muzzled along the way. Lewis has survived it. He has reshaped his image and become a better man, a rehabilitated NFL hero. He got off pretty easy. If he has to answer questions about the killings one last time in New Orleans, it’s a small price to pay.
Redemption is a cheap commodity in sports, after all. But it’s a more complicated matter to redeem the essentially violent nature of the NFL. Roger Goodell, the commissioner, rails about violent hits, while his film division glorifies them for profit.
Goodell fined the Niners’ Frank Gore $10,500 for wearing his socks too low in the NFC title game. He embraced Lewis after the Ravens beat the Patriots for the AFC crown. Let’s face it, Lewis has become a lurid, compelling advertisement for the NFL product.
Lewis might be a reformed man off the field, but he’s still a man of violence. He once knocked Rashard Mendenhall out for the season with a hit and boasted about it later. He plays linebacker, the same position as the late Junior Seau, who rivaled Lewis for his sheer physical menace on the field.
It’s hard at times to tell where the violence begins and ends. Sometimes it spills onto a sidewalk outside a bar at 4 a.m. Sometimes, a former star with a damaged brain shoots himself in the chest.
Meanwhile, the NFL and the Super Bowl keep getting bigger. That’s the real truth. A few dead bodies are mere collateral along the way.