One more game for Ray Lewis. One more time to dance, to lead, to inspire, to be called a murderer.
For me, knowing the Baltimore Ravens' game Saturday at Denver could be his last, it's one more time to watch my favorite Ray Lewis video. It's ridiculous, really, that this would be my favorite. Of all the videos available of Lewis, of all the footage of him working his magic on the field, this is my favorite? This? This talk he gave to the Stanford basketball team before its 2012 NIT semifinal? Yes, that video. It gave me goose bumps when we posted it last March, and it gave me goose bumps just now when I watched it again, and those goose bumps are still with me as I'm writing what you're reading now.
That was Ray Lewis, in all his motivational, charismatic, preachy glory.
Who was Ray Lewis the night of Jan. 31, 2000? Very few people know. You and I are not among those who do.
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But that doesn't stop us from having an opinion of Ray Lewis, and of his actions that night. Contrasting opinions, possibly. We're torn by Lewis, torn like we've never been torn by a big-time sports athlete. Some of us revere Ray Lewis, see him as an inspirational leader who loves God and preaches teamwork and will be so terribly missed when this season, his final season, is over.
And some of us see a murderer.
Black or white when it comes to this guy. No gray allowed. No gray possible, really. Either you think he killed two men on Jan. 31, 2000 or you don't. If you do, nothing else matters -- nor should it. If you really think Ray Lewis killed Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker after a Super Bowl party in Atlanta, you shouldn't be swayed by his charm or talent or work ethic. Murder trumps all that.
But if you don't believe Lewis killed those men, you love the guy. Hard not to, really. By now you can probably guess where I stand on Ray Lewis, but to be clear I'll come out and say it: I don't believe he killed anyone. I do believe he was nearby on the night Lollar and Baker were stabbed to death. I believe he was close enough to get their blood on the white suit he was wearing; otherwise, why was that suit never found? Why did witnesses testify that Lewis' limo stopped to dump a hotel laundry bag into a garbage bin? A handful of people know the answers to those questions.
You're not one of them.
Neither am I, but like a lot of people I have my opinion. Unlike a lot of them, my opinion isn't clouded by my allegiance to -- or against -- Ray Lewis. It doesn't matter to me that he plays for the Ravens, though I'm sure it matters to some people. That sounds silly, I know. You're saying I believe Lewis is guilty of murder because he plays for the wrong team?
Yeah. I am saying that.
Look, this is how we do things as sports fans -- and you know it. When it's our coach operating in an NCAA gray area, we explain it away. We excuse it. We attack fans of other schools for attacking our guy. You're jealous!
When it's our player accused of something atrocious, we defend him. Innocent until proven guilty, haters! When Kobe Bryant was accused of rape in 2003, lots of people automatically believed he was guilty. To this day some people still do. Why? I have no idea. He'd done nothing up to that point -- nor has he done anything since -- to suggest he was capable of such a horrific crime, but in 2003 folks around the country sure seemed to lean that way. Lakers fans? They sure seemed to lean another. Same with Ben Roethlisberger when he was accused of raping a Georgia woman in 2010. Steelers fans defended him against non-Steelers fans.
Again, I know it sounds silly. Hell, it is silly. But our preference to root for a team -- or against a team -- affects how we view stuff like this.
All that matters to me is who Ray Lewis is, who he has been for the nearly two decades since he entered the public eye as a star freshman at Miami in 1993. And for two decades he hasn't done anything to earn my belief that he killed two men on Jan. 31, 2000. The missing suit, presumably covered in blood, is a problem -- one that I can explain away, and reasonably, by believing that Lewis shared a limousine with the killers. That doesn't make Ray Lewis, on the night of Jan. 31, 2000, an angel. But it doesn't make him a murderer.
Obstructing justice, as Lewis has admitted to doing? That's not a good look. Witnesses testified that Lewis was giving orders that night, saying among other things, "Keep your mouth shut."
Lewis was protecting himself, his career. That's what I think. And no, that's not a great look, either. Two men died, and Ray Lewis was concerned about his career? Yeah, he was. It happens. Put me in that terrible position, and I might be concerned with the same thing. So might lots of you. And lots of us may well have done what Lewis did in the years after those murders, reaching undisclosed financial settlements with families of the two dead men to avoid civil lawsuits. That would be protecting our career and maybe, just maybe, showing compassion for those left behind.
People who know Ray Lewis better than you and I seem to think he's innocent. That by itself isn't nearly good enough, but it's another reason to believe. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue fined Lewis $250,000 in 2000, but his replacement, Roger Goodell -- who has made it his mission to punish players who embarrass the NFL -- doesn't seem embarrassed by Ray Lewis.
"He's a special guy," Goodell told The Baltimore Sun after Lewis announced last week that this would be his final season. "He means a great deal to this commissioner, and I could tell you that I will always seek out his input."
He's a special guy.
So says the tough-on-crime commissioner of the NFL.
He's a murderer.
So says lots of you.
Not me. I've been paying attention to Ray Lewis for almost 20 years, and I don't see a killer. I see a passionate, charismatic marvel. I see one of the best linebackers in NFL history. I see a man who was in the wrong place in the wrong time on Jan. 31, 2000, and made mistakes as that night turned to hell.
And I see a man who could speak to my team any time.