A big, vague ghost in the Ray Lewis reporting

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If you are a pro-football fan, or a human being who is alive and breathing in greater Baltimore, then you are probably aware that today’s playoff game between the Ravens and the “Indianapolis Colts” is the final home game for Ray Lewis, perhaps the greatest inside linebacker to ever put on pads (and I say that as an old-school fan of Mike Singletary).

Lewis has played for a stunning 17 years, with 13 trips to the Pro Bowl and his off years — such as this year — have largely been those that were hampered by injuries. The man is a legend on the sideline, acting as a leader and firebrand, as well as on the field.

There are some people who, frankly, hate Lewis’ guts, in large part because of a brush with violence early in his career. Others like to call him “God’s linebacker” because of his very outspoken, if somewhat vague, statements about his faith. There was that “The Gospel According to Ray” cover story at Sports Illustrated, after all.

The huge, A1 Baltimore Sun piece announcing his plans to retire, at the end of the 2013 playoffs, covered the linebacker’s future in pulpits, as well as, according to news reports, cable-TV sports. Here is a major chunk of the summary material about one of the dominant figures in Baltimore life:

Lewis’ biography is one of extremes. A child of a broken home, he became a football prodigy, seemingly destined for the Hall of Fame from early in his career. Then, just as he neared his pinnacle, he faced murder charges that threatened his future. Lewis pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and he became one of the NFL’s most divisive players — derided in opposing cities, deeply respected by his peers, adopted wholeheartedly by Baltimore, the city where he played his whole career and devoted his charitable efforts.

A fiery leader, he riled up teammates and home fans like no one else with his signature entry dance at M&T Bank Stadium. He ended up, finally, as an elder statesman, a sort of wise uncle to the generations who followed him into the nation’s most popular sport.

A subdued Lewis said he came to his decision while spending time with his sons as he rehabilitated his injury in Florida. A man of outspoken faith, he talked of growing up without a father and not wanting his children to be without him any longer. He had to choose between them and holding onto the game.

Lewis has stressed that a major factor in his decision was timing — with one of his sons starting his college football career next year at, just like his father, the University of Miami.

No one questions that Lewis is a first-ballot NFL Hall of Fame selection.

No one doubts the impact of his volunteer work and strong financial support for work with the poor and needy in Baltimore and in his home state of Florida. Lewis has committed hours of face-to-face time, as well as cash. As the story notes, “In 2010, the city rechristened a stretch of North Avenue ‘Ray Lewis Way’.”

Lewis has been the face of the Ravens franchise and, for many, the positive/negative face of Baltimore.

What’s next? This week’s Sun piece concluded:

Lewis appeared utterly calm about his decision as he spoke of God calling him to the next phase of his life.

“The emotions are very controlled, because I never redo one day,” he said. “Every moment I’ve ever had in this building, what this organization has done for me, what this city has done for me, what my fans have done for me, what the mutual respect for different players have done for me around this league, I can never take any of that back. That’s the ultimate when you leave this game. You leave it with one heck of a legacy.”

Actually, the farewell statement featured a whole lot more Godtalk than that. I listened to a tribute on Baltimore talk radio as I headed home from Divine Liturgy this morning and counted six references by Lewis to God and a divine calling on his life.

So what is my journalistic point?

Well, I have lived in greater Baltimore for a decade and there are a few questions I would like to see addressed in a story of this kind — in my local newspaper.

Please understand that this is not an attack on Lewis.

No, it’s a request for relevant journalistic information, if we are talking about a man who is going to spend a lot of time as an inspirational speaker in churches, at colleges, etc., etc. We are talking about a man who has six children with four women. Once plagued by reports of violence against women, Lewis has — since his spiritual turnaround a decade ago (in part due to an intense relationship, much larger than football, with Singletary, an outspoken Christian) — attempted to give his children the father-bond he never had with his absentee father.

I have questions. In effect, I am asking The Sun for an update on that 2006 SI cover, which provided details that I don’t think I’ve seen in the local newspaper.

Question No. 1: Where does Lewis go to church? Past? Present? Future? Is it still Empowerment Temple? What role does his church play in his life, his philanthropy, his future?

Question No. 2: Who is his pastor, his spiritual leader? Who does he call when he is in spiritual crisis? Is is still the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant of Empowerment?

Question No. 3: Lewis is known as a mentor who has helped many players mature as men, as well as athletes. Does he still make the sign of the cross with oil on the foreheads of teammates who are believers? In moral matters — so crucial to his rough and tumble life — as he evolved beyond his 2006 advice to one player? That was: “Don’t you sleep with no woman without a condom.”

I short, if it is so crucial to keep telling readers that Lewis is a preacher-like figure, why isn’t it important to back that claim up with actual information? You know, journalism? Have I somehow missed a lot of important coverage in the past few days?

Meanwhile, the Ravens just beat the “Colts.” Maybe the Sun team can do some more Lewis coverage next week, before the next game out in Denver that could end his long and great career.

When they ripped the jersey off Lewis’ back today (probably for the Hall of Fame archives) he was wearing a shirt that proclaimed Psalms 91. For those who are into details, that scripture opens by proclaiming:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

And the end?

“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him;

I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

That could mean something. I’ll check my local newspaper.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • tmatt

    I have an in house question.
    Lots of people sharing this post, but no comments.
    Hey readers: Did you read past the new READ MORE URL for longer posts?
    Just asking.

  • tmatt

    Also, people, this is not the best place to simply blast Lewis and do a retrial of the charges against him, which were dropped, in Atlanta. That is — by all means — part of the story and journalists are dealing with that. It’s the point where his life seems to have changed and turned toward the spiritual.

  • Howard

    I came in from NewAdvent and did not see the READ MORE URL. (Is that like EAT MOR CHIKIN?)

    My guess is that any beliefs Lewis may have beyond “Don’t you sleep with no woman without a condom” are being ignored because the media want this to be a *nice* story. Since “everybody” agrees that condoms are a good thing, that can run. If, on the other hand, Lewis believes that abortion is murder, or that people can go to Hell without being high-ranking Nazis, the papers would have to make him out to be either evil, insane, or incredibly stupid; at the very least, they would have to “warn” readers that he is “controversial” (see Tim Tebow).

    The media want a warm and fuzzy story. Warm may be hard to provide for a man like Lewis, but fuzzy they can do.

  • Pingback: More about Ray Lewis and his Psalms 91 t-shirt


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