Thursday, January 31, 2013

Murder Is More Than A 15 Yard Penalty

Super Bowl Sunday is just days away now, and for the first time that I can remember, the main attraction is a defender. Ray Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens star linebacker, has the gravitas to command the attention of every camera, the popping of every light-bulb, and the awe of every eye on the biggest stage in American sports, when he runs out of the tunnel at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for Super Bowl XLVII and does his iconic dance, single-handily taking the blockbuster game to another level. People are divided on who they want to win the big game and who they think will win the big game, but most everyone is pulling for Lewis, a player who has thrown so much energy and inspiration and emotion into his craft since he was drafted by the Ravens back in 1996, he has curtailed a cultish following in the most professional and popular sport in the country - and washed the names Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar from that nation's collective memory.

I'm sickened by the adulation parade around the retiring linebacker. I don't understand, and I won't join in. It takes a unique kind of person to shed the memory of an arrest for murder -  and Lewis is nothing if he's not unique. It was almost 13 years ago today in Atlanta in the midst of a Super Bowl party that Lewis and his entourage got into a fight with another group of people, and Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar were stabbed to death. Lewis was questioned by the police in the aftermath of the incident, and 11 days later, the star linebacker and his companions Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting were arrested for murder.

Eventually, Lewis cut a deal with prosecutors for his testimony against Oakley and Sweeting, pleading guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice. Lewis admitted lying to and misleading the police when he was questioned on the morning after the killings, and his testimony against his friends was less than convincing. Oakley and Sweeting were found not guilty. No other person has been arrested for the crime. 

I appreciate the inspirational message Ray Lewis tries to send. I appreciate the fact that Lewis is walking the straight and narrow now, doing charitable work, and being a good role model to kids. But I can't not hear Lewis' emotionally charged message and shake my head in disbelief, wondering if Lewis is nothing more than a great actor who has performed more plastic surgery to his image in these last 13 years than Joan Rivers has had in that timeframe. You see, Lewis' biggest emotional imprint on the world is the death of two young men who had friends, family, and so much to give and learn, live and love. I hear the emotionally-charged energy in Lewis' voice, the crackling fire that flies when he speaks, I hear him quote Bible verses, and wax philosophical and I get the same vibe from Lewis I get from a great actor, playing the newly-forgiven hero in a blockbuster Hollywood film.

I'm not saying Ray Lewis committed murder. I'm not one for conspiracies and wild guesses about terrible tragedies. So I'll stick to the facts. Ray Lewis was at the nightclub. He and his friends were involved in an altercation. Two men were killed. Lewis lied to the police. The white suit he was wearing that night, the suit that prosecutors said was stained with blood, was never found. It's a fact that Baker's blood was found in Lewis' limousine, and it's indisputable that Lewis was the only person to plead or be found guilty of a crime in the deaths of Mr. Lollar and Mr. Baker. Lewis' friends were on trial for the killings, and if Lewis' biggest crime that fateful night was standing by and not doing anything while two young men, the kind of young men he tries to preach to now were killed by his buddies? Then his crimes in my eyes are just as bad as if he made the fatal stab.

I know Lewis can't talk about the murders, except for in a passive voice, an abstract tone which he doesn't use in any other facet of his life. There is no statue of limitations on murder, and as far as the criminal justice system is concerned, the real killer of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar is still out there. So we don't get a straight answer from Lewis about what happened that night in Atlanta. That's fine. I just won't give him straight forgiveness for his transgressions. 

The Ray Lewis story is very American - a tale filled with loss and redemption, hope and faith. But I don't think this is a story we should embrace. It's a story that screams, we don't care what you do, we don't care how you act, we don't care about anything as long as you perform well on the field. That's worrisome. It doesn't say good things about our society. I love that we give second chances in America, and if you're a star athlete who was involved in drugs, infidelity, drinking and driving, killing dogs, stealing or bullying, as long as you show your remorse and come clean, we can forgive you. But a free pass on murder is crossing the line. A lot of people are talking this week about Lewis' impact on the Ravens turnover margin. The only turnover margin that matters in Ray Lewis' life is -2 - lives lost vs. lives saved. 

Ray Lewis' defenders will unfailingly come back to this point: Lewis plays his heart out every Sunday. Doesn't matter. That misses the point. This isn't about football. The only role football has in this story about life and death is artificial, a platform for Lewis to be forgiven for off-field sins because of plays in a game that have nothing to do with the crime he was involved in. 

I think Ray Lewis is fantastic on the field, in the locker room, and I think he's doing well in life now, but that really doesn't matter here. Ray Lewis, on his farewell tour through the playoffs, is being treated like an outgoing king. And while I commend Lewis for walking the straight and narrow - and I think it's great how Lewis is living now - I won't slobber all over a guy who was involved in homicide. The families of Jacinth Baker and Richard Loller don't get the spotlight. And they have to watch as the man involved with the death of their son, cousin, sibling, friend and peer gets an outgoing party like he is Rocky Balboa. I can't even begin to imagine how much that must hurt. So no, I won't join in the Ray Lewis party. Murder hurts too much. It affects too many lives. It's the unforgivable crime. And just because Ray Lewis is a star athlete, I won't forgive him.

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