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8 Upper

It's a Shame About Ray

By Tom Scocca | Posted 2/9/2000

One of the sorriest things about the sorry mess Ray Lewis has gotten himself into is the triteness of it all. Is this the way the Greatest Player in Ravens History will go down, in a scenario lifted from cash-money music videos? That's how the Ravens' linebacker spent his Super Bowl Sunday—with the overpriced drinks, the stretch Navigator, the entourage of friends and strangers. "Four A.M., exit the club," just like the girl says in the Jay-Z song.

And then, somehow, two men got stabbed outside the Cobalt Lounge and quickly bled to death. And that stretch Navigator peeled away from the scene, under gunfire. And the next day Ray Lewis was all by himself, and suddenly famous.

Until Jan. 31, when he was arrested, most people who aren't AFC Central fans hadn't really heard of Lewis. That's what comes with being the heart and soul of a franchise that's best known for having no heart and even less soul. Even so, Lewis was slowly winning some recognition—if you did watch Ravens games, it only took about three minutes before you noticed that No. 52 was making all the plays on defense.

For all I can guess, Lewis may get to keep on making those plays. He's got a sharp and aggressive legal team working for him, challenging the police reports and press accounts at every turn. Already, his proposed role in the killings has gone from direct involvement to merely being a witness to not even being aware that anyone had been stabbed. Who knows? At this rate, in another week, we may learn he wasn't in Atlanta at all, and everyone can breathe a big sigh of relief.

Realistically, though, the facts are only going to flex so far. Lewis was in a bad place at a bad time, and a very bad thing happened there. The police are obdurate so far in their belief that they've got their man; the judge who denied Lewis bail seems to agree that the cops have a point. Whatever Lewis did or didn't do, his reputation is in trouble.

Before this incident, this is what I knew about Ray Lewis: He seemed to be well-spoken, he had a penchant for sleeveless suits in borderline-comical plaids, and he was the only indisputably great player to wear the purple and black. How good is he? The Ravens' main strength this past season was their defense, which allowed the second-fewest yards in the league. And Lewis led the league in tackles. When a player leads the league in tackles, that means he's doing an unfair share of the work on defense, picking up the slack for his teammates. If the defensive squad is being carried by one guy, and the defense is ranked near the top anyway—well, even as Lewis sat out the Pro Bowl in the Atlanta stir, three Ravens went to the game on his coattails.

But now, Lewis is known for something else, for being that football player who was outside the Cobalt Lounge when two people ended up dead. He is also the guy who's accused of punching a woman at a Woodlawn bar in November (though the case against him is falling apart) and of roughing up two different pregnant girlfriends in college, at the University of Miami (though neither one pressed charges). The rap sheet is unproven or suppositional, but it's trailing behind him all the same.

And unfortunately for Lewis, his chosen profession is almost entirely about image. He got a $26 million contract for four years not because he's a terrific linebacker, but because he's a valuable part of the National Football League's entertainment package. What is linebacking really worth, after all? It's skilled physical labor. According to Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 486, the top pay rate for an industrial plumber around here is $22.73 an hour. If we estimate—generously—that a pro football job requires a full workday and that the season covers half a year, then Lewis earns about 225 times more than an elite plumber does.

In exchange for all that money, the responsibility of the Ray Lewises of the world is to stay out of trouble. For some reason, the NFL and other pro sports leagues have been unable to come out and say this clearly enough. Don't beat up your girlfriend. Don't drive drunk and run off the road at 100 mph. And don't get into bar fights at 4 A.M.

Questions of guilt and innocence are still in the future. Police have been wrong before. The Atlanta police and the FBI were wrong about suspected Olympic bomber Richard Jewell—yet they still held him without bail. Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson went to prison in high school, essentially because he was a recognizable athlete at the scene of a brawl. This is basically what Lewis' lawyers are saying happened to their client. But the appearance of trouble is bad enough.

When Michael Jordan took over basketball operations for the Washington Buzzards—recalcitrant and underachieving, with more than a few DUIs and assaults among them—one of his first moves was to implement a dress code, requiring players to wear sport coats and dress shirts on the road. Jordan, who built his own image into one of the world's most successful brands, understands how important appearances are.

And it's a surprisingly short distance from Jordan's successes to Lewis' failure. Both men, it turns out, were at the Cobalt Lounge the week of the Super Bowl. But while Lewis and his crowd were running into trouble, pursuing their lame public fantasy of being high rollers, Jordan had already removed himself from the scene.

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