What's Ray Lewis' story?
On the face of it, it's an easy question. If you're a football fan, you know Ray Lewis' story. Brilliant linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, one of the best to ever play that position, a respected team leader, the emotional core of that team, accused murderer, man who pled guilty to obstruction of justice, man who paid a settlement to the families of the victims.
This has been widely chronicled.
But really ... what is Ray Lewis' story?
Is this a story of redemption?
Or is it a story of a famous pro athlete getting away with murder?
Narratives are a powerful thing. Narratives are how we as humans understand the world and relate to it. We don't instinctively understand data and facts. We do instinctively understand stories and narratives.
Narratives get a bad rap a lot of times, particularly in criticism of sports journalism. There's an opinion that sports writers are too driven by narrative. They're looking for a story, even if that story flies in the face of facts and data. This is how the Manti Te'o story blew up - the narrative was so powerful, writers got swept up in it. You read and hear this a lot around the Baseball Hall of Fame voting - a player may have excellent stats but lacks a compelling narrative, or a player may have a stellar narrative that obscures less-then-stellar stats (think Jack Morris and Game 7). Narratives are powerful, and once they're defined, they are hard to change.
But narratives aren't all bad. Narratives can provide depth, nuance, and a human touch to sports coverage. It's cliche to criticize Olympic coverage as being too story driven*, but there's something to that. That's a vital role the sports media can and should play - finding the stories behind these athletes we cheer for and spend so much money following.
(*Smarter people than may have said this before, but there's something incredibly gender-biased in this. Like "real sports" coverage is the man's world, and that introducing stories "feminizes" it too much.)
Sports media has an incredible power to shape the narrative of an individual player, coach, team or an entire sport. So often, that narrative comes down to a simple story - player overcoming the odds; selfish ball-hog who only cares about himself and money; heroic player showing true grit and heart; plucky underdog taking it to the overconfident favorite.
The problem with narratives is that they are often far too simplistic. They don't take the whole picture into account.
Narratives, like life, are often complicated.
Side note: I don't have much of an opinion, one way or the other, on Ray Lewis. I think the media hagiography on him and his career has been over the top. But I do believe that people can change. I've always respected the way Lewis has played football, his intelligence, his obvious charisma and leadership. It's worth pointing out, too, that he's kept his nose clean pretty much since then (with the exception of the new PED rumors that came out this week).
It's telling, too, that I have zero problem watching Ray Lewis, who was at least tangentially involved in the murder of another human being, while at the same time, I have a big problem watching Michael Vick.
So what's Ray Lewis' narrative?
Is it one of a man who, at the very least, was involved in a fight that led to a man dying? Or is it of a man who is a team leader, one who redeemed himself through sports?
It doesn't hurt that Lewis is an incredibly media savvy, media friendly guy. He's a great talker, he says meaningful things in interesting ways, he's accessible. He acts and looks like an archetypal football player - and in an era where there's so much concern over player safety and a crackdown on hitting, he can be seen as the last of a dying breed.
In a weird way, in this regard, Ray Lewis reminds me very much of Joe Paterno.
Is Ray Lewis defined by that night in Atlanta?
Is Joe Paterno defined by his inaction toward Jerry Sandusky?
Are you defined by your worst action? Always and forever?
Is redemption possible?
How you define Ray Lewis' story depends completely on you and your opinion on the matter. You may view him with disgust, as a spoiled athlete who is responsible for another man's death. You may view him as the last real football player. You may be cheering for him. You may be cheering against him.
Ray Lewis' narrative is complicated.
Life can be like that. Even on the sports pages.