Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis has always been one of the most complex characters in all of sports. Over his 17-year NFL career, Lewis’ passion, speed, and ability to crush offense players has thrilled Baltimore Ravens fans, and earned the respect of football followers across the country.
But in 2000, Lewis got entangled in a still-mysterious criminal incident that left two people stabbed to death in Atlanta. Lewis was charged with murder, but pled guilty to obstruction of justice — a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to a year of probation. He testified against two co-defendants; they were both found not guilty in June of 2000. No one else was ever charged in the case. Later, Lewis settled two civil suits against him, for undisclosed sums.
Lewis’ football career soared over the next decade. The Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001, and Lewis took the MVP. By all accounts, he was charitable off the field. The incident almost became a footnote – even corporate America embraced him. He starred in a Visa ad. Lewis did a bunch of Old Spice commercials. The company even labeled him a “Superperson.” This year, the NFL featured him in a cutesy spot promoting its player safety agenda. ESPN has reportedly hired Lewis as a commentator for next season.
But Lewis’ January announcement that he would retire at the end of this season, and Baltimore’s subsequent run to the Super Bowl, have given people reason to reexamine his legacy. Did Lewis’ on-field success, and off-field charisma, lead us to gloss over that ugly episode earlier in his career? If so, does that say something ugly about our priorities? Yes, the courts cleared Lewis of the most serious crime. But how can we ever really know what happened that night?
Now, a new – though far less serious – accusation has been leveled against Lewis during this Super Bowl week. In a Sports Illustrated story, the owner of a company called Sports With Alternatives to Steroids (S.W.A.T.S.) said he gave Lewis a mix of products including deer-antler extract, in spray and pill form, which contains IGF-1, a banned performance-enhancing substance. Sports Illustrated – which, like TIME, is owned by Time Warner — said that in a phone call S.W.A.T.S. owner Mitch Ross taped after Lewis tore his triceps in October, Lewis asked Ross to “just pile me up and just send me everything you got, because I got to get back on this this week.” Lewis returned to the field for the playoffs in early January.
Did a banned substance help Ray Lewis come back – and help him guide the Ravens to the Super Bowl? (Some performance-enhancing drug experts have said deer-antler spray cannot deliver IGF-1). And as the fans wrestle with his legacy, can Lewis shed any more light on what happened in Atlanta 13 years ago? These questions are fair game at the Super Bowl. “Ray’s honest,” says Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “Ray’s straightforward.”
So why doesn’t Lewis seem to be speaking straight?
Lewis speaks with the cadence, and zeal, of a preacher. (His exuberance was recently spoofed on Saturday Night Live). Here in New Orleans, that style has been vexing. Lewis has denied using deer-antler extract. But when pressed about the story on Tuesday, Lewis said: “That was a 2-year-old story that you want me to refresh … so I won’t even speak about it. Because I’ve been in this business 17 years, and nobody has ever got up with me every morning and trained with me. Every test I’ve ever took in the NFL — there’s never been a question of if I ever even thought about using anything. So to even entertain stupidity like that …”
Though Lewis has been tied to S.W.A.T.S. previously, it wasn’t a two-year-old story he was asked to address. It was a story released an hour or so beforehand, which said that he was on tape, asking for banned substances, three months ago. And yes, Lewis hasn’t failed an NFL drug test. But the NFL doesn’t test for IGF-1.
When asked about the SI story again Wednesday morning, Lewis said: “I think, honestly, and I’m going to say this very clearly again – I think it’s probably one of the most embarrassing things that we can do on this type of stage. I think it takes totally away from – you give somebody the ability to come into our world. Our world is a very secret society, and we try to protect our world as much as we can. But when you let cowards come in and do things like that, to try to disturb something — I’ve said it before, I’ve said it a million times – the reason why I’m smiling because it’s so funny, the story. Because I’ve never, ever, took what he says – whatever I was supposed to do.”
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Yes, there’s a denial in there. But why is this “one of the most embarrassing things that we can do on this type of stage?” If Lewis may have taken something that was banned, this issue should be raised before the Super Bowl. He still doesn’t directly address his conversation with Ross. Is he saying it never happened? Is he saying that yes, he requested the deer extract, but then never used it? Lewis won’t go near that level of detail.
Instead he starts talking about how “our world is very secret society,” and efforts to “protect our world as much as we can.” Blend those two phrases together, and is Lewis saying that football players try to protect secrets? If Lewis is playing by the rules and not taking a banned substance, what secrets does he need to protect?
Here’s more Lewis, after being asked if the deer antler story has been a distraction to his teammates: “It’s not. It’s a joke, if you know me. Cause you can’t – I tell them all the time, this is what I try to teach them, is don’t let people from the outside ever come and try to disturb what’s inside. And that’s the trick of the devil. The trick of the devil is to kill, steal, and destroy. That’s what he comes to do. He comes to distract you from everything you’re trying to do. There’s no man [who has] ever trained as hard as our team has trained. There’s no man who went through what we went through. So to give somebody credit that doesn’t deserve credit — that would be a slap in the face for everything we went through … Hey, listen, I promise you. We all in here have a past. How many people actually dwell into it? You know? Nah, it aint about your past. It’s about your future.”
Where to begin? Let’s start with the devil. Who or what exactly is the devil here? And at the end, what’s with that bit about all of us having a past, but not needing to dwell on it? Is Lewis implying that he did make mistakes in the past? That, maybe, he did use this stuff? But asking questions about it is wrong?
These coded messages are confusing.
And on Tuesday, when asked about the double murders in 2000, Lewis said: “Nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions. 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 [sounds] 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 I would rather not talk about it today.”
The start of that response is mean-spirited. Why is anyone who reads about a public, high-profile event like the 2000 murder case not qualified to ask about it? And the end is mysterious. “I live with it every day of my life.” What does he live with? Guilt? Anger that some people still suspect he played some role in the tragedy? What?
Once again, Ray Lewis speaks, and we’re left to sort out what he’s saying. If Lewis analyzes games the NFL for ESPN like he talks about these controversies, he’ll leave audiences scratching their heads. Is this the way Lewis typically operates?
Or is he being conveniently cryptic?
Like so many fans, I’ve enjoyed hearing Ray Lewis’ words over the years. Those pre-game speeches he gives his teammates – they hook you in. But when he’s talking about unpleasant controversies, the more sermons Lewis gives, the more frustrating a figure he becomes.