Saturday, February 2, 2013

Hero-Worship And Loathing At The Super Bowl

While getting situated for the AFC Championship game a couple Sundays ago, my 6-year-old son called my attention to the television screen.

"Dad," Oscar asked, "why is he crying?"

I looked up to see the image of Ray Lewis having some sort of breakdown as the National Anthem played.

"Because he knows the camera is on him," I said.

Or maybe I'm just a prick.

In case you had not heard, the Baltimore linebacker and future Hall-of-Famer announced his pending retirement before the playoffs started. To the delight of television producers and hack sportswriters everywhere, the Ravens gave flesh to the easiest narrative possible by getting the best of both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, allowing Lewis to finish his career in the Super Bowl.

When a mini-scandal broke involving accusations that Lewis used something called deer-antler spray to help heal a mid-season injury, one ESPN writer rushed to his defense in an embarrassing display of jock-sniffing.

Jeffri Chadiha's column remarkably managed to brush aside an accusationof PED use (which, to be fair, is not being levied by the most credible of sources), while not making one single mention of the double-murder case that has hung over most of his career.
The story of Ray Lewis chasing a Super Bowl in his final season has been easy to love and impossible to ignore from the moment he announced he was calling it quits. Football fans in Baltimore -- and around the league -- loved the idea of Lewis ending his career in the same way as Denver's John Elway and Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis. It's touching when a great player leaves on top. It lets us all feel warm and fuzzy at the end of a long season.
Unless you are a cynic of the type who feels the need to bring up that night in Atlanta 13 years ago, when Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker were disemboweled during a brawl outside a bar following another Super Bowl, a pair of killings for which no one has ever been convicted.

At least two men in Lewis' entourage that night, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, and Lewis himself, were involved in the brawl outside the Cobalt Lounge in Atlanta's Buckhead district hours after the St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans (who were present thanks to the most controversial lateral in NFL history), 23-16, in Super Bowl XXXIV.

All three were charged with murder, though prosecutors reduced the charges against the linebacker, allowing him to plead guilty to obstruction of justice for lying to police, ostensibly in exchange for his testimony against his friends. On the stand, Lewis said he was trying to break up the fight and didn't see anyone do any stabbing. Two key witnesses also changed their initial accounts about the degree of his involvement.

The jury acquitted both Oakley and Sweeting, so the one year of probation to which Lewis was sentenced on the misdemeanor obstruction charge was the only punishment ever meted out for the two killings. Lewis was also fined $250,000 by the NFL and settled lawsuits by the families of the victims out of court.

But, of course, you know all that if you've been paying any attention to the annual fortnight of Super Hype leading up to Sunday's epic clash between the Ravens and San Francisco. When that bloody scene in Atlanta is mentioned at all by the cogs in the NFL's publicity machine,   though, it's to underscore how nobly Lewis is handling related questions this time around. As opposed to the days leading up to his last Super Bowl appearance, a year after Lollar and Baker bled out on the street, when he actually said:
Yes I got money. Yes I'm black and yes, I'm blessed. But at the same time, let's find out the real truth. The real truth is (this) was never about those two kids that's dead in the street. This is about Ray Lewis.
In the ensuing 13 years, he's upgraded to gently scolding those who ask the questions, while treating his own victimization in a much more circumspect fashion.
"Nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions," he said. "I just truly feel that this is God's time, and whatever His time is, you know, let it be His will. Don't try to please everybody with your words, try to make everybody's story sound right. At this time, I would rather direct my questions in other places. Because I live with that every day. You maybe can take a break from it. I don't. I live with it every day of my life and would rather not talk about that today.
At least two reporters decided to tell the story of how the deaths of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar affected someone other than Ray Lewis. Tim Graham of the Buffalo News contacted Lollar's mother after the Ravens beat the Patriots to qualify for the trip to New Orleans, traveled to Akron, Ohio -- the hometown of both victims -- and wrote a rather powerful piece on their survivors which ran in the News last Sunday. A very similar story also ran in the Washington Post.

Drew Magary sums up the anti-Lewis sentiment nicely in a Deadspin piece aptly headlined "The Hater's Guide to Ray Lewis."
It's not exactly daring to hate Ray Lewis. Facebook data show that most people are rooting for the 49ers to win the Super Bowl, and I'm sure "FUCK RAY LEWIS" has a lot to do with that. No one disputes that Lewis should be a Hall of Famer, and I guess we can all agree that he's a good leader. He sure shouts a lot. What is in dispute is whether he's an overrated, self-aggrandizing sack of shit who throws God in your face any time you accuse him of being anything less than a saint.
This being the age of media contrianism, there is a backlash to the Lewis backlash. Deadspin's take on the Buffalo News and Washington Post stories carried a headline, "How Two Newspapers Ended Up Staging The Same Sob Story About The Ray Lewis Murder Case," which was snarkier than anything in the inside-baseball narrative itself.

So where does We Want Marangi come down on all of this? I came to the conclusion while covering the Bills as a full-time beat in the 1990s that the notion that watching men play football, then talking to them about it for a few hours a week offered any insight into their true character is pretty ridiculous.

I saw Bruce Smith routinely mythologized by the national media when it came through town. Meanwhile, many of his teammates barely tolerated him due to his undeniable talent, but showed little use for him as a person.

Doug Flutie's public image as the scrappy little quarterback that could conflicted with the locker-room politician who campaigned among select teammates against Rob Johnson, while deftly presenting himself as an anything-for-the-team guy to media and fans.

When Chris Spielman retired after taking a year off to support his wife, who was being treated for breast cancer, I wrote the following for the BuffaloPOST:
Once in a while, when someone finds out I spend part of my working life talking to and writing about professional football, he or she asks, "What's (insert name of Buffalo Bills player here) like, anyway?" 
My usual answer? "I don't know." 
I don't know that being friendly and eloquent with the press or fans necessarily makes an athlete a good human being. People thought O.J. Simpson was a pretty nice guy for about one quarter of a century. 
Likewise, a player not comfortable in the limelight or with public speaking can be the most solid citizen on the roster. 
We see athletes on the field and in the locker room (and occasionally in court or at the mall). The gauzy up-close-and-personal features seen nightly on the nightly news, ESPN and on every pre-, post- and mid-game show might make us think we know these guys, but we don't. At least I don't.
That pretty well sums up my feelings on Ray Lewis. Rationally, I will never know what happened that night in Atlanta, or how he really feels about it, beyond clearly feeling victimized by the whole mess.

Nor do I know whether he is really the Patton-esque leader of men the ESPN's of the world love to portray him as, or if his exhortations trigger the same sort of eye-rolls and snide comments Smith used to get from his Buffalo teammates.

But there is little rational about being a fan. Which is what makes it fun. We get to love, hate, excuse or ridicule based on nothing more than geography, favorite color or other instinctive impulse. It's sort of like politics, except free of real-world implications.

I had sort of been dreading this Super Bowl, due not only to the Lewis factor, but also the hype machine's unending fascination with the siblings who coach the Ravens and 49ers. That's another column entirely, one I have no intention of writing. After thinking this through, though, I realize my feelings toward Lewis have less to do with him than with the myth-making hordes who make me give the whole mess a second thought in the first place. And it should be a good, even great, game between two teams who have proven themselves the NFL's best.

Like it or not, we are guaranteed this much on Sunday evening: We will get to see Ray Lewis cry before the game, and again after, however it turns out.

After all, the cameras are sure to be on him.

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