Ray Lewis has had a remarkable NFL career, but as it nears a close with Sunday’s Super Bowl, some observers are saying a fatal incident in Atlanta 13 years ago is a defining moment in his legacy. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)
New Orleans — It's good to be us, isn't it?
With our pristine lifestyles and unwavering morality, we've never made a bad choice or had to ask for forgiveness. We've never found ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. You'd never catch us in a fight outside a bar at 4 a.m. There's no way we could ever be duped by some sick prankster, either online or over the telephone. No way.
As 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh likes to say — "Who's got it better than us?"
We get to stand up on our soapboxes — on Twitter, in comment sections on newspaper sites, on sports talk radio and whatever other fake pul-pits we can hide behind — and cast judgment and derision on all the sinners and screw-ups. We get to vilify a 21-year-old kid for being naïve, even though his naïveté hurt no one. We get to assume he's either complicit in the hoax or gay, before he even begins to tell his story.
And then after Manti Te'o unburdened himself, we get to revel in his public humiliation.
Who's got it better than us?
For two full weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, we get to cluck our tongues and indignantly shake our heads as the NFL celebrates the storybook end of the Hall of Fame career of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
Maybe others have forgotten, but we, in all our righteous glory, have not. Two men were killed outside an Atlanta nightclub Jan. 31, 2000, and Lewis, then 25, and two acquaintances initially were charged with murder.
Never mind the prosecution in the case found no evidence Lewis killed anybody, in fact found more evidence he acted as peacemaker. Never mind the battered and bumbling prosecutors stopped mid-trial and offered Lewis a deal.
Never mind that even with Lewis' testimony, the co-defendants ultimately were acquitted and the case was closed, with nobody being charged for the murders.
Never mind, either, that for the last 13 years, Lewis has been one of the most inspirational and positive forces on and off the field, with nary an incident or allegation against him.
We're not buying it.
We weren't there that night in Atlanta. We've never spoken to Lewis or anybody who knows him. And it's been 13 years, so our memory of the case, the trial and Lewis' role in it is fading. But we know two young men were killed and, by God, we know Lewis had something to do with it. They never found that white suit he was wearing that night, right?
Once a thug, always a thug. How many kids has he fathered with how many women (reportedly six with four women)? And he has the audacity to quote scripture? He's a fraud.
What's happened to us? Where has the compassion gone? Has the constant negative bellowing on talk radio or the sarcastic yammering from the bitter and clueless social media trolls beaten it out of us, made it uncool?
We're all a bunch of tough guys on Twitter, aren't we? Always quick to administer the verbal boot when somebody fails to live up to our expectations. And let's be honest, who could ever live up to our expectations?
Are we so frustrated in our lives and envious of the successes of others, that it gives us pleasure to watch the once mighty fall from grace? Whether it's Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Te'o or Lewis — do their failures really make us feel better about ourselves?
Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? Whatever happened to double jeopardy?
Lewis never was convicted of murder and by law (Google the 5th amendment) he can't be tried twice for the same crime. Yet, as we buckle up for another week of Super Bowl hype, it sure feels like Lewis is back on trial for that tragic night 13 years ago.
ESPN aired a full 30-minute special on the incident. USA Today, the Baltimore Sun, National Public Radio, Deadspin and the Orlando Sentinel have all revisited that night and the subsequent trial and acquittal.
Presumably, the outcome of the trial remains the same and the case remains closed, though it wouldn't surprise me if it ends up as a "Cold Case" episode.
"I'm sure he felt bad that two men lost their lives, tragically," Shannon Sharpe, a former teammate of Lewis' in Baltimore, told the Baltimore Sun. "His name will forever be attached to that. I told him ... a great portion of people will always remember you for what transpired in Atlanta; you can't change that, no matter if you win 10 Super Bowls."
Lewis understands that. Obviously. As he said in a 2010 interview with the Sun: "I'm telling you, no day leaves this Earth without me asking God to ease the pain of anybody who was affected by that whole ordeal. He's a God who tests people — not that he put me in that situation, because he didn't make me go nowhere. I put myself in that situation.
"But if I had to go through all of that over again ... I wouldn't change a thing. Couldn't. The end result is who I am now."
And that's where I am going with this. The question will be asked repeatedly this week — is Lewis a hero or a villain?
To me, he's neither. He's a man who grew up angry and made mistakes when he was in his 20s, but matured and has since led a mostly exemplary life, a life that has inspired much more than the Ravens franchise.
I do believe in second chances. Sorry if that makes me a wuss. I believe in repentance and redemption. That's what Lewis' story is to me — a wondrous tale of redemption.
Yes, two young men were killed and certainly the families of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker deserve respect and sympathy for their loss. But, again, Lewis was not convicted of any crime. The prosecution found no evidence he was involved in the deaths.
You can spend your time picking that apart and damning Lewis for things nobody knows anything about, but to what end? I'd rather celebrate what he's made of his life and how he's enriched so many other lives the past 13 years.
And I am not even talking about football — where he will go down as the best to ever play middle linebacker in the NFL. (It still blows my mind that for 51 straight games from 1998-2001 with Lewis as the main run-stopper, the Ravens never allowed a 100-yard rusher.)
But more to the point, check out the work his Ray Lewis 52 Foundation does, in Baltimore and Lakeland, Fla., providing food, clothing, school supplies and more to families in need.
It is easy to be cynical these days, to say that everything Lewis does is ultimately for the betterment of Lewis and his brand. But I am sorry. If he were truly a fraud, there's no way he could command the unconditional love and respect he clearly has of his teammates and from players across the league.
If he were phony, if all his scripture-spouting speeches were thought to be self-aggrandizing or self-promoting in any way, the players would be the first to call him on it. Believe that. There is no greater reality check for posers than an NFL locker room.
Lewis may not be a hero (sports stars rarely, if ever, are true heroes), but he's damn sure not a villain. He's a great football player, an iconic NFL star, who overcame a turbulent upbringing, was perhaps scared straight after the tragedy in Atlanta and went on to live a productive, honor-worthy life.
But, hey, we're all too cool to celebrate some cornball story like that.