“If God is for you, then who can ever be against you?”  These words, paraphrased from the Apostle Paul, were shouted by Ray Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens’ fabled linebacker, following his team’s Super Bowl triumph over the San Francisco Forty-Niners.  Like so many athletes who have arisen to stardom, Lewis well nigh defies description.  A novelist with a fecund imagination matched only by his surgical writing skill would be hard pressed to portray this gridiron warrior as a credible character. Almost everything about him is exaggerated. His bloated musculature, brutal aggression on and off the field (once charged with murder, aggravated assault, and obstruction of justice in a double homicide), and unrestrained libido (the father of six children by four women none of whom he ever married) are evidenced from the moment he enters the stadium, an event he punctuates with a feral ritual resembling a war dance. His intellect is notable by virtue of its being inversely proportionate to his physicality.

Lewis attended the University of Miami on a “football scholarship,” one of the more interesting oxymorons of our age. It is impossible for me to imagine him in an academic setting, pondering a reading assignment and then addressing an intelligent question to the professor. I wonder incredulously what his major subject was, although I understand that he later went on to complete his undergraduate work at the University of Maryland. At any rate, before his college eligibility expired in Miami, he was drafted by the Ravens, with whom he played his entire NFL career of 17 seasons.  He has now signed on as an ESPN commentator for next year at a handsome salary.

As I looked at and listened to Lewis paraphrase holy writ, I wondered what “shared understandings,” to quote political theorist Michael Walzer,  have made the man a cultural icon.  Aside from his prowess on the football field, he appears to be little more than a troglodyte or sub-human.  There is little more redemptive about his social prominence than the Boston Strangler’s. 

I fear that our heroes speak volumes about us as a society and people.  Lewis’s cultural status underscores our belief in winning at all costs, our emphasis upon brutality and violence, and our tendency to turn a blind eye to immorality and ignorance, and to give a pass to criminal conduct when celebrity and substantial amounts of money are involved. 

The sports ethos in this country is frightening and not simply because of its misplaced priorities.  It contaminates and trivializes all that it touches. Coaches scream white-hot profanities from the sidelines. Celebrities perform the national anthem while severely intoxicated, forget the words, or hopelessly garble them.  Fans dress and act outrageously; some wear facial and body paint and scream with excitement not only during the singing of the anthem, but also when players are injured.  One wonders how the mindless hordes, including the garrulous and empty-headed commentators, will respond when a player is carried off the field in a body bag.  Stay tuned, because that horrific prospect is almost sure to become a reality. 

Already it has come to light that many players have suffered traumatic brain injuries.  Jim McMahon, former quarterback of the Chicago Bears, has experienced severe memory loss, to the extent that he must use a GPS device when navigating only blocks from his home.   Junior Seau, a star linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and recently committed suicide.  

Yet perhaps the most egregious profanity of all is the self-serving invocation of deity by a stupid athlete.  I am tired – no, sick and tired – of hearing brutes like Ray Lewis implicate God in what they do. We have all heard prize-fighters, who have mercilessly battered the brains of their opponents,  interviewed by ringside announcers and begin by crediting God with their victory.  This surpasses ordinary offensiveness; it is scurrilous and dishonors Christianity, not to mention the tradition of good sportsmanship that athletic games should embody. The words Lewis uttered, in the context of a Super Bowl victory, were worse than hate speech. Somebody, perhaps Coach John Harbaugh, should explain to him that God does not play favorites in the NFL and is at best a dismayed observer.

The American people do not want to look at themselves in an honest way.  The savagery of Ray Lewis is a microcosm of popular American values.  It is also a disgrace.

February 6, 2013