January 23, 2013
DENVER — When the Super Bowl crush descends on New Orleans, there is one subject certain to grab my attention. It won’t be the final score of the game.
It's this: How will Ray Lewis be portrayed?
I tend to think the answer will show a great deal about our priorities. His role as a witness in a 2000 murder case hovers like an elephant in the media room. Will the powerful networks address the incident or swish it under the rug in favor of feel-good highlights?
This isn't meant to reopen a case from 13 years ago or to try Lewis over again. Neither is within our means.
This is more about how we too often portray athletes as deities who walk among us.
As if to test our patience lately, sports have thrown our faith through a gantlet. One after another, athletes who were glorified showed blemishes when placed under a microscope.
Manti Te'o lied for the cameras and will admit as much in a TV interview Thursday. Lance Armstrong came clean about not playing clean. No one was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, a sobering nod to the era of performance-enhancing drugs.
On his self-proclaimed last ride, Lewis rode back into the spotlight. Since then, the Ravens linebacker has been celebrated as something he’s definitely not, because no one is: Larger than life.
I’m not faulting their failure. It’s what we do; we fall short. I'm great at it.
I fault how we perceive these men as something more than what they are — utterly human and fallible, like the rest of us.
Once in a while, I catch myself. It's easy to do. Peyton Manning’s precision forces a man to shuffle his greatest-quarterback rankings. Kevin Durant at Pepsi Center was brilliance. Von Miller, who requested the nickname “Vonnie Football,” drops my jaw as often as he makes me laugh.
As long as we make certain to separate their athletic greatness from their human-ness, I think we haven’t blurred the line. But there has to be a difference between the two.
Here’s the line, simplified:
Te’o’s final season at Notre Dame was worthy of football praise. He made 100-plus tackles to lead a defense that advanced to the BCS title game. But when a Heisman voter pledges for Te’o because he believes the linebacker is "a saint," the line was crossed.
This is football we're talking about, not the work of second-grade teachers and surgeons and Dumb Friends League volunteers and firemen.
We can all agree on that, right?
That’s why I'm eager to see how Lewis, the headliner of this Super Bowl, is portrayed in New Orleans.
Here's hoping there is a balance of coverage leading into his final game. That includes his vast charity work in Baltimore and Florida and beyond, as well as his witness to a murder.
At the least, console the family of the two men who were killed.
If we stick to Lewis the football player, a great linebacker, that’s honest and fair. If he is celebrated as something of a human legend, when he's simply a man, we've failed again.