Ray Lewis has one game left. Win or lose, after Super Bowl XLVII he’ll wipe away the eye black, take off the do-rag, and hang up his pads for the last time. And having played seventeen elite-level years at a bruising position in a brutal league, he’ll deserve his first-ballot election to the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton. As a football player, Lewis is simply as good as it gets.
But what about as a man? Will Ray Lewis be remembered for his joie de vivre, for his vocal Christianity, for the inexhaustible reservoir of motivation and dedication that has made him beloved by teammates, coaches, and even opponents over the years? Or will he be remembered for something much darker? For a night in Atlanta that ended with two young men dead and Lewis and his entourage facing a murder rap?
There isn’t much that can be said for certain about that night, January 31, 2000. Outside a nightclub in the early morning hours, Lewis and two associates got into an altercation with 21-year-old Jacinth Baker and 24-year-old Richard Lollar, among others. By the end of it, Baker and Lollar were bleeding to death from stab wounds. Because of witnesses’ changing and conflicting stories, everything else is a blur. Baker and Lollar may or may not have been the aggressors. They may or may not have been part of a “gang.” Lewis’s associates may or may not have been hit over the head with a champagne bottle. They may or may not have been shot at by Baker and Lollar. Lewis may or may not have thrown a punch in the fight. He may or may not have been a mere bystander. Though no DNA was found on the murder weapon, much hay was made over the fact that Baker’s blood was found in Lewis’s limousine, and the white suit Lewis was was wearing that night disappeared.
Atlanta police questioned Lewis and his friends, and two weeks later charged them with murder. Ray Lewis’s lawyers secured a deal whereby he would plead guilty only to a misdemeanor obstruction-of-justice charge (he admitted to misleading investigators the night of the killings, later saying that it was because he was threatened) and agree to testify against his companions. He was sentenced to twelve months’ probation (the maximum), and the charges against his friends were later dropped. The murders of Baker and Lollar remain, technically, unsolved. Lewis reached a civil settlement with the respective families though he has consistently maintained that he had no hand in the killings.
But that night still follows Lewis, in ways good and bad. It meant that Disney World didn’t want him uttering that famous post-win phrase a year later when he was named Super Bowl MVP, and it meant that 13 years later, with Lewis back at the big game this week, he is still fielding questions about what was, to the state of Georgia, at least, a misdemeanor conviction.
He responded to one such question: “I live with that every day. You can take a break from it. I don’t. I live with it every day of my life.” That’s likely true, and likely a big part of Lewis’s development, in the years since, into one of the NFL’s most outspoken Christians. He prays on-field and thanks God in postgame interviews enough to embarrass Tim Tebow. He preaches at his church. And he talks to NFL rookies about keeping their noses clean and being careful when choosing friends.
The arc of Ray Lewis’s life has earned him his share of haters: eye-rollers who think the talk about Jesus is self-serving and over the top, and cynics who think his money and fame helped him get away with murder. I’ve felt whiffs of both sentiments toward Lewis in my years as a football fan, but as I write this I’m somewhat surprised to find that I don’t hate him at all. As a diehard fan with the “you think you’re better than me?” inferiority complex of all diehard fans, I hate plenty of professional athletes for plenty of reasons, good and (mostly) bad. But as his past is dredged up for one more news cycle before his retirement, I find myself neutral, or perhaps benignly ambivalent, about number 52.
Part of it is because I’m enough of a sap to believe in redemption. And even if the worst said about Lewis is true, his is still a story not much different from that of the cellblock converts who found God after assault or robbery convictions, or of the reformed drug addict who freestyled his ministry over a hip-hop beat on my subway ride to work this morning. Like them, Lewis made mistakes that appear to have paved the way to something better. And in the eyes of the criminal-justice system and the league (which hit him with a $250,000 fine for his conviction), Ray Lewis has paid his debt to society. The rest is between him and the Almighty.
But the bigger reason for my reaction is that I take the very ambiguity surrounding that night in Atlanta as instructive of something bigger about the way we canonize and, more frequently, demonize professional athletes. Some of them make it easy for us to do that. We know the grisly details of Michael Vick’s canine torture ring. O. J. Simpson was found civilly liable for two homicides and ghoulishly wrote a book called If I Did It. But the confusion around Atlanta leaves open the possibility that Lewis is an innocent victim, a coldblooded killer, or something that is any of a thousand gradations between. Thirteen years later, anyone who says he knows which it is, is lying.
Was Ray Lewis a great player? I’m happy to debate about veterans coasting on reputation, whether inside linebacker is a premier position, and the question to what extent Lewis benefited from excellent supporting casts. Was Ray Lewis a good man? I don’t know. And neither do you.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.