Naylor: The two very distinct images of Ray Lewis

Dave Naylor
1/31/2013 11:50:18 AM
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It is against the backdrop of Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Joe Paterno and other recently fallen sports heroes that Super Bowl Week brings us Ray Lewis: football hero, role model, endorsement pitchman, future broadcaster and invited advisor to the NFL commissioner, 13 years removed from a plea of guilty to obstruction of justice in a double homicide.

Yes, sometimes the sports world and its figures really test us about what we're willing to believe and not to believe.
And that is before anyone ever heard of putting deer antler spray on a triceps muscle.
That's not meant to be cheeky.
It's simply a recognition that today's sports fans are often forced to debate what is real, and what is not.
While there's been the usual Super Bowl discussion here in New Orleans about which team will win on Sunday, which Harbaugh brother is more likeable and what will happen with San Francisco 49er quarterback Alex Smith next season, another, deeper question is being asked.
Is Ray Lewis worthy of our worship and praise, or is he one of the great frauds of our time?
Lewis has attempted to reverse the path of other fallen sports heroes by going from someone most people regarded as a dubious sort of character to one who gives us hope and inspiration.
There's not much of a road map for pulling that off, or at least there wasn't until Lewis came along.
It's important to recognize that the whole business of determining the character of the people who play professional sports is rigged with folly, something we don't acknowledge often enough.
The fact that there are two very distinct public images of Ray Lewis - the one leading up to his last appearance in the Super Bowl 12 years ago and the one from that point until today - makes deciding what to think of him all the more challenging.
Ray Lewis the football player isn't hard to figure out at all.
He's one of the greatest linebackers, and football players, in NFL history.  Not only has he anchored a defence that has consistently ranked among the NFL's best through most of his career, he's managed to sustain his ability through to age 37.
Seven men who've coached him on the defensive side of the ball have gone on to become head coaches in the NFL – Marvin Lewis, Chuck Pagano, Mike Smith, Rex Ryan, Mike Nolan, Jack Del Rio and Mike Singletary.
Ask any of those who have coached or played with Lewis and you're likely to hear them praise him to the sky, not just about his football skills and leadership abilities within the locker room, but as a role model outside the game as well.
Not that the legend of his inspirational power needed any enhancement, but the story of his return from injury, the announcement of his intention to retire and the Ravens subsequent playoff should be the Hollywood ending to cap his career.
But there is another narrative to the Ray Lewis story.
From his days at the University of Miami to his early years in Baltimore, Lewis seemed like the perfect villain, coming across as an angry young man from a tough background who seemed associated with violence on and off the field.
He'd fathered children by multiple women, been investigated - although not charged - by the police several times. The stories of him making his way around town in a full-length fur coat, accompanied by an entourage in his limousine, only served to complete the picture.
And then there was that night 13 years ago in Atlanta. Lewis and his entourage were involved in an early morning brawl outside a nightclub. Two men were stabbed to death in the street outside. Lewis spent time in jail, and was sentenced to a year's probation.
Since that time, by all accounts, Ray Lewis hasn't had a sniff of trouble. He speaks openly about God and gives generously to charities. He comes across as sincerely as he does articulately, talks about life as much as he does football.
But can we really judge Ray Lewis the person, with any degree of certainty? Probably no more than those who were not at the scene of the crime in Atlanta can determine what degree of responsibility Lewis has for the deaths of two people.
Most of us can't imagine growing up the way Ray Lewis did, born to a 16-year-old mother, estranged from his biological father, living in a neighborhood where violence was a reality of life.
If he had significant character issues as a young NFL player it would certainly be understandable. If he is today a changed man through experience and maturity, that is certainly plausible as well.
The two narratives don't have to be mutually exclusive and it is at least as risky to exonerate him at this point of his life as it is to condemn him.
Converting one's image in mid-career is not an easy trick. But it becomes easier when facilitated by our willingness draw a link  between athletic greatness and strength of character away from sports.

That's what has opened the door for Lewis to recreate his public image into something more acceptable and, coincidentally or not, more marketable.

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