Ray Lewis: a Man of Mystery

152842125One of the great icons in the American psyche this week is Ray Lewis, long-time linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens. Lewis’s Ravens of course are meeting the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday for the Super Bowl – I’m not sure what number it is because I’ve kind of lost track of their Roman Numeral system. Lewis is undoubtedly in one sense deserving of the praise that is being heaped on him. He is one of the best linebackers of all time – a man whose work ethic is second to none and whose commitment to keeping himself fit has made him one of the game’s premier players into his 37th year. His play at the linebacker position in many ways has redefined the position. An entire generation of defensive players – in the NFL, in college, and at the high school level – considers him a hero. He is a multi-time pro bowler, a multi-time all-pro, and will one day be an easy hall of famer.
But I am not convinced. The Washington Post ran an insightful article earlier this week that expressed the sentiments that I have for a long time held but that the mainstream media has been too cowardly to highlight. The article talked about Lewis’s likely involvement many years ago in an unsolved murder – a night at a strip club where things got out of hand and a man ended up dead at the hands of one or more killers. Our criminal justice system is built for good reasons on the principle that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. And I want to be fair to Lewis. He has never been convicted of murder in the case. But at the same time it is important to remember that he has never been fully acquitted either. Important pieces of evidence mysteriously went missing and for this reason it was not possible to hold a full trial in the case. Numerous people around Lewis and who have knowledge of the situation have thought for years that he was probably involved in some capacity in the actual murder event. Kudos to the Post for its courage in bucking the tide and running the piece this week about Lewis’s past.
Our intuitions these days about the value of human life are becoming increasingly baffling. I have found many times in my teaching, for example, that my students are more upset by mistreatment or cruelty toward animals than they are by mistreatment of humans – especially human life in its earliest stages. The thought of puppies suffering is much more worrisome to many of my students than is the thought of a fetus being aborted in the womb. This reversal of our traditional intuitions is increasingly apparent in the public culture as well. A couple of years ago there was a huge media event erupted around the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal. As my colleague Jerry Walls has pointed out to me, people made a much bigger deal about Vick’s cruelty to dogs than they have done about Lewis’s possible participation in a murder of a human being. I grant that Vick’s cruelty to dogs was a proven thing, and that Lewis’s criminal involvement is not. But the fact that the Vick case upset so many people is to me a sign of a troubling ethical disturbance. A hundred or a thousand doggy lives are not as valuable as a single human life and the culture that gets that wrong is in dangerous moral straights.
The former prime minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, once said that the media age has made it possible for public figures to sustain two personalities – their public personality and the real person that they are to their friends and acquaintances in private. My fear is that we have made Lewis out to be one thing in public and that he is very much something else in private. I do plan to attend a Super Bowl party this week. I love, after all, spending time with friends on a Sunday evening – and this is an easy way to do it. I also love good food and lots of laughter. But this week I plan to remember that there is a dark side to the Super Bowl mania. One of the game’s premier players is a man of mystery and in spite of the hype that will surround him on the field he may in fact be something quite different from what the announcers make him out to be.
The Super Bowl is a fascinating cultural phenomenon. It reflects high achievement – some of the greatest athletes in America (and indeed in the world) will be on display on Sunday. Their achievements have taken many years of hard work. So the Super Bowl in one sense does reflect some of the triumphs of American culture. But at the same time the Super Bowl reflects some of America’s tragedies as well. Only a couple of years ago I learned that the biggest sex trafficking event in America each year is the Super Bowl. Hundreds or even thousands of women are flown in each year to pleasure the fans who are in attendance at the game or who simply are in town to be part of the pageantry. That knowledge, coupled with my fears about Ray Lewis’s private personality, are going to put a major damper on the game for me this year. I’ll enjoy the chips and dip, the friends, the laughter, and the good-natured teasing that always marks spectator sports parties. But that’s just the party. The game itself – well, that’s another matter.

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