Super Bowl: Ray Lewis is Ray Lewis — deal with it

I have said it before and I will say it again. I know that, as a rule, GetReligion readers care very little about what happens in the world of sports.

Nevertheless, some of you may have heard that there is a rather big football game being played tonight in New Orleans, with the Baltimore Ravens squaring off against the San Francisco 49ers. It’s in all the newspapers.

Some readers may also have heard that a very famous, sure first-ballot Hall of Fame linebacker named Ray Lewis is — after 17 remarkable years — playing his last game for the Ravens.

Now, whether one considers Lewis a kind of urban saint or a man who, literally, got away with being an accessory to murder, this big man is a major figure in American sports. There is no way around this. Click here for a GetReligion post containing all of the basics.

With the Super Bowl looming, ESPN.com summed this all up the other day:

Do you believe in Ray Lewis? Do you embrace the eye black, smeared down both of his cheeks, occasionally mixed with tears? Does your heart pump faster when he dances, feet sliding, biceps bulging? Do you nod and say, “Amen” when he speaks? Do you have your name in his cellphone? There are hundreds in the NFL who do, my friend — rookies, Ravens and even the poor soul he just flattened on the 20-yard line. “I love you,” Ray will tell some of them. And they love him, too. …

Do you see it in his eyes, his passion? Maybe you roll your eyes because Lewis is doing another news conference in designer sunglasses when it’s dark outside. But do you believe? That villains can become heroes? Do you buy into what he’s selling? It’s simple, really. Either you do or you don’t; you’re in or you’re out. … Do you believe in Ray Lewis? Do you believe that a man should be judged at his very worst or his very best?

Now, I know a lot about the sins in Lewis’ past and, in posts here, I have tried to deal with the press coverage of the man’s fiery, if at times vague, faith. After reading a week or two of the “last ride” coverage, I think it is rather obvious that a significant number of reporters simply want the man to shut up — especially about God.

Forget the last pre-game dance. Many are dreading the last post-game sermon.

Well, I want to urge GetReligion readers to pay close attention to the post-game sermon. In particular, I want folks to see whether Lewis is outspoken about the blessings of God if the Ravens win and silent on the blessings of God if they lose.

Personally, I want the Ravens to win, but I rather expect the ’49ers to win (with the key being whoever runs the ball most effectively). So I think we will have a chance to hear Lewis deal with defeat.

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More about Ray Lewis and his Psalms 91 t-shirt

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So, GetReligion readers, I am happy to report that the Baltimore Sun team noticed the scripture reference at the heart of one of the biggest moments in the recent history of sports here in Charm City. I am referring to the fact — click here for the previous GetReligion post — that when, after Ravens personnel had ripped the jersey off his back, superstar linebacker Ray Lewis faced national television cameras and ran a victory lap of the stadium while wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed “Psalms 91.”

The Bible reference was featured at the end of prominent story about Lewis’ volunteer work, often faith-based, in the community. More on that in a minute.

The t-shirt drew its own short Sun online story which I didn’t see in the dead-tree-pulp newspaper, unless it merely missed the edition delivered at my house near the Baltimore Beltway.

The key question, of course, was this: Why this particular Psalm?

That raises, for me, an interesting journalistic question. How, precisely, are journalists supposed to know which part of this famous and complex passage of scripture inspired Lewis’ symbolic act if they didn’t dare to ask him that question?

Well — DUH! — you choose the most controversial motive, in this case noting that parts of Psalm 91 fit into the whole image of Lewis living as an angry warrior still haunted by the enemies who doubt his words and acts of repentance for his serious, serious errors in the past.

Thus, Sun online readers read:

… Curious minds wanted to understand what point Lewis was trying to make as he took a victory lap around the stadium wearing this particular shirt.

The psalm is known as the “psalm of protection.” It has a lot to do with vanquishing various enemies with faith and treading upon beasts under one’s feet. Here’s a key passage:

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.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.

Of course, the biblical reference to treading on lions and serpents led the Sun team to the obvious National Football League connection — the need to tread on Colts, Bengals, Lions, Eagles, etc. It’s the playoffs, you know.

The actual news report — “Fans praise Lewis’ efforts on and off the field” — touched on a number of different projects that have drawn support from Lewis, especially a project to fight the spread of AIDS among African-Americans.

The faith themes in the piece came together at the end, including a quote from the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, who is known for his work in tough, impoverished streets. At one point, he noted that the fact Lewis has spent a few days in jail does not offend many people on that side of the city.

Some observers find his speeches about redemption cloying and his over-heated rhetoric about leadership silly. Ravens fans eagerly awaited his dance before each home game; others mocked it. …

As Lewis left the field for the last time, he wore a shirt that read simply “Psalms 91.” Like other Bible passages Lewis has referenced, it is a vivid telling of triumph through difficult times. “You will trample the great lion and the serpent,” it reads.

“Ray’s story is ancient, and it is beautiful,” Witherspoon said. “It speaks to Baltimore.”

The reference to “triumph through difficult times” is solid, but, of course, frames Psalm 91 in sports-friendly terms. “Triumph” sounds better in the newspaper, perhaps, than more doctrinal words such as “repentance” and “salvation.”

But let me ask my main question again: How do journalists know what the Psalms 91 t-shirt was saying, for Lewis himself, without asking him?

Does this matter? Well, is he an angry, paranoid warrior or a thankful, repentant believer?

With that in mind, please read past the jump and note the full Psalm 91 text. If in the journalistic driver’s seat, which section of the psalm — speaking to journalists — would you have argued was most relevant as Lewis ran his farewell lap on Sunday?

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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?

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