How to as­sess Ray Lewis?

Mike Wise tries to get a han­dle on the legacy of the Ravens’ line­backer.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Mike Wise over­whelm wisem@wash­post.com For pre­vi­ous col­umns by Mike Wise, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/wise.

NEW OR­LEANS — The last game of Baltimore’s most beloved gridiron star since Johnny Uni­tas is hours away, the last time in 17 years the soul and grit of the Ravens will trudge from tun­nel to sta­dium, gla­di­a­tor-style. Torn tri­ceps, the ter­ri­ble team he played on just a month ago . . . they all con­spired against his fa­bled end­ing. Still, he stands. Men­ac­ingly — in the mid­dle of the field, in the mid­dle of the con­trolled may­hem, in the mid­dle of one of the great tales of per­se­ver­ance and re­demp­tion in sports.

And I still don’t have it in me to root for Ray Lewis, whose tur­bu­lent ride into the NFL sun­set not only brings up con­flict­ing feel­ings about his legacy but also com­pletely eclipsed the most un­der­rated story of Su­per Bowl XLVII: his team.

How the Ravens in­cred­i­bly ended up here de­served more cov­er­age than the stench of deer antler spray.

Joe Flacco beat­ing Pey­ton Man­ning and Tom Brady on back-to-back weeks was a bet­ter story than whether Lewis would deign to per­form his in­ter­pre­tive “squir­rel dance” one fi­nal time. But we hardly wrote and talked about that. In­stead it was all Ray, all the time. He an­nounced his pend­ing re­tire­ment via the usual cathar­tic re­lease on a podium in Owings Mills, Md. — on the Wed­nes­day be­fore Baltimore’s first play­off game. It was a de­ci­sion at least some in the or­ga­ni­za­tion were not happy about, ac­cord­ing to two former Ravens and a cur­rent team of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity. No­tice that nei­ther Coach John Har­baugh nor man­age­ment or own­er­ship was at his side at the time.

Some di­chotomy, no, the most uni­fy­ing pres­ence on ei­ther team in the big game was also the player pri­mar­ily re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing this run mostly about him.

“I don’t look back; I look for­ward,” he said this past week, re­fer­ring to any event, report or fact that por­trayed him in less than an il­lu­mi­nat­ing light. “Ev­ery­thing that’s be­hind me, sup­posed to be be­hind me. Ev­ery­thing that’s in front of me, God has pre­de­ter­mined to be in front of me.”

It’s just not that easy. Be­cause any au­then­tic dis­cus­sion about Lewis’s legacy needs to be­gin with one premise and one premise only: The past counts.

Now, we can talk about the war­rior on the field and the char­i­ta­ble man off of it. We can say great things about what he’s done to turn his life around, speak of the thou­sands he’s touched — from ail­ing, anony­mous chil­dren to the great­est swim­mer in the world, Michael Phelps, who said Lewis helped him be­lieve in him­self again be­fore the Lon­don Games.

But be­fore we get there, we have to go back to At­lanta 13 years ago — even if Lewis can’t bear bring­ing it up.

“No­body here is really qual­i­fied to ask those ques­tions,” he said, re­fus­ing to ad­dress the stab­bing deaths of two men af­ter a con­fronta­tion out­side a bar af­ter the 2000 Su­per Bowl that re­sulted in Lewis plead­ing guilty to ob­struc­tion of jus­tice, tes­ti­fy­ing against two former friends who were later ac­quit­ted and civil-court pay­outs to at least two mem­bers of the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies.

Call­ing him “mur­derer” is wrong, slan­der­ous. But he is no more a mar­tyr to­day than Jacinth Baker and Richard Lol­lar are alive.

Be­yond that night, the sense of vic­tim­hood he’s cre­ated and fu­eled 13 years later is part of the rea­son it’s hard to root for him.

He made life de­ci­sions about friends that came with con­se­quences, just as he made de­ci­sions about get­ting in touch with a ques­tion­able sup­ple­ment guru to help with his re­cov­ery and re­turn. We didn’t in­vent Mitch Ross and his sprays and his pills and mag­net patches; Lewis clearly had a re­la­tion­ship with him that re­port­edly in­volves his phys­i­cal well­be­ing.

If we’re go­ing to can­on­ize Lewis for the per­son he be­came af­ter the low­est moment in his life then we also need to un­der­stand why he be­came such a re­demp­tive fig­ure — be­cause many thought him once to be ir­re­deemable.

Be­tween the peo­ple of Charm City want­ing to bronze him and Wes Welker’s wife call­ing him a dou­ble-mur­derer on her Face­book page af­ter the AFC cham­pi­onship game, there is prob­a­bly a mid­dle ground re­served for a flawed but in­deed re­demp­tive char­ac­ter.

Un­til Lewis ac­cepts that gray area — that, af­ter ev­ery­thing, he is prob­a­bly some­where south of ab­so­lute hero and north of hea­then, and not squarely on one side of the good-evil spec­trum — he is al­ways go­ing to feel per­se­cuted and not un­der­stand the real truth:

Ray Lewis is not a vic­tim of the scru­tiny he re­ceives; he vol­un­teered for it.

“If you want to say you’re Mr. Re­li­gious and all of that, have a clean record,” former Giants wide re­ceiver Amani Toomer said this past week. “Don’t say all of that stuff if you know there’s stuff that might come back. Those are the things that, when I look at him, I just think hypocrisy.”

His legacy is ex­tremely com­pli­cated, and all the talk of banned sub­stance, squir­rel dances and the sanc­ti­mo­nious na­ture of some of Lewis’s com­ments about him­self, his faith and al­most ev­ery­thing but his team this week have made that legacy more com­pli­cated.

“At the end of the day, don’t ever let ad­ver­sity de­fine who you are,” he be­gins, “Let it who you are.”

It sounds good and right, the wis­dom of an old NFL line­backer strap­ping on the hel­met and bear­ing down on a ball­car­rier one last time on the fi­nal night of this pixie-dusted Baltimore sea­son. But 17 years later, I don’t really know how gen­uine it is — how gen­uine Ray Lewis really is.

I won’t root against him be­cause of that. But I can’t root for him.

NICK WASS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ray Lewis will strut into the sun­set af­ter Sun­day’s Su­per Bowl, his pregame rit­u­als just one of the many marks he left on the game. Not all of those marks are good.

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