Why Is Ray Lewis Such a Polarizing Figure?

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 22, 2013

You either love or hate Ray Lewis; there is no middle ground.
You either love or hate Ray Lewis; there is no middle ground.Al Bello/Getty Images

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has been in the NFL for 17 years, and after this year's Super Bowl, he's prepared to retire, whether his team wins or loses.

The 13-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl MVP may be the best linebacker to have ever played the game, and there's no doubt that he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

But the farther one gets away from Baltimore, the more the sentiment towards Lewis changes. He's not a beloved player, a source of seemingly endless inspiration—no, he's nothing more than a criminal, a spotlight-hogger, a beyond-his-prime has-been not deserving of all the attention he's received.

There are many words to describe Lewis, and there's no doubt that "polarizing" is one of them. But why? What has made Lewis so loved by some and reviled by others?

First, there's the simple fact that there's a degree of human nature that dislikes seeing someone succeed at the highest level. Nobody hates Matt Schaub (well, maybe someone does) but it's easier to find people who hate Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, and deep down, the root of hatred is jealousy. It's not a complicated logical leap for someone to go from "I wish I could be him," to "because I can't be him, I don't like him."

With Lewis, however, the animosity goes beyond the simple fact that he's racked up 2,050 tackles, 41.5 sacks and 31 interceptions over his 17-year career. 

Lewis had already begun making a name for himself almost immediately upon becoming a member of the Ravens in 1996, reaching the Pro Bowl by his second year in the league after being the top tackler in 1997. Still, he didn't become a household name for his on-field successes.

No, it took a high-profile criminal case to cement his image in many people's minds as—believe it or not—a murderer.

In January of 2000, following a Super Bowl party in Atlanta, a fight between Lewis' entourage and another group resulted in the stabbing deaths of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. Lewis and two of his friends, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting were eventually indicted on murder and aggravated assault charges.

Murder charges against Lewis were eventually dropped, as part of a plea deal that included Lewis testifying against Oakley and Sweeting. Instead, Lewis plead guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice, admitting that he gave a false statement to police after the murders. He was given a year of probation along with a $250,000 fine from the NFL. Oakley and Sweeting were found not guilty later in 2000, and Lewis reached a civil settlement with the families of the deceased in 2004.

Based on the particulars of the case—with Lewis turning state's witness against the other two to avoid murder charges of his own, and the fact that allegedly blood-covered white suit that Lewis wore on the night in question was never recovered—many were led to believe that Lewis was indeed a murderer, despite the men he was with that night being acquitted of the crime. 

In many ways, we live in a "guilty-until-proven-innocent" society, despite the legal system's attempt at the opposite. However, because of the plea deal and the missing suit, many pointed to Lewis' apparent guilt regardless of how the particulars of the case played out. The tag of "murderer" has thus stuck with Lewis 13 years after the fact, and it's something those who simply don't like Lewis point to, to this day, as a reason why he's not worthy of all the adulation he's received since.

Even after Sunday's AFC Championship Game, the cries of "Ray Lewis is a murderer" didn't get any more quiet—in fact, they seemed to only increase in volume. Among those who chose that particular trope was Anna Burns Welker, wife of Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker, who posted on Facebook:

Proud of my husband and the Pats. By the way, if anyone is bored, please go to Ray Lewis' Wikipedia page. 6 kids 4 wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay. What a hall of fame player! A true role model!

Though Welker eventually apologized for her comments, the fact remains that they weren't uncommon on Sunday, just as they weren't uncommon sentiments to hear in the years since the murders. And the fact remains that, because Lewis was apparently present when they occurred, he's never going to be able to shake that reputation. It's just a fact of life, for Lewis and for those who support him.

After the incident, Lewis tried to atone for his actions and for who he used to be, turning to his Christian faith to guide him. That, too, has further served to divide opinions on him.

Though continuing to play at a high level, Lewis started to be defined by his fiery on-field and off-field speeches, meant to motivate his teammates (or to whomever he was asked to speak). But this, too, elicited mixed reactions.

Some saw him for what he was—a godly man with a gift for speech who happened to be able to fire up anyone, anywhere. They saw Lewis as someone who wanted to use his story of personal redemption to inspire others.

Others saw Lewis' motivational speeches as calculated public relations maneuvers, designed to make everyone forget about his alleged involvement in a double murder. And even those who were in the former camp have started to tire of Lewis' God-first, fire-and-brimstone routines, especially in recent years when his on-field skills have taken a back seat to his pontificating.

Lewis has been demonized for a crime with which he ultimately was never charged. But he's also been lambasted for any attempts to distance himself from the man he was at that time. Therefore, there will likely never be a time in which Lewis is universally appreciated for his on-field play or universally forgiven for whatever it is he may or may not have actually done.

Ultimately, Lewis is a complex person, just as we all are. However, it would be far more comfortable if Lewis were just a one-dimensional football player who operated only within the parameters of the 100 yards of turf he's responsible for defending in 60 minute intervals for up to 20 weeks a year. 

Instead, he's someone who admittedly made massive errors in judgement, who has spent the past 13 years trying to repair his off-field image, become a better person and prove that he can in fact be a role model to practically everyone—all while developing into one of the best defensive players in the history of the sport. 

When you're in the spotlight, the court of public opinion is unrelenting, and considering his past, it's understandable why that would be the case for Lewis. And now that the Ravens are headed to the Super Bowl, with Lewis' retirement coming immediately afterward, he's again become a major storyline.

The debate about Lewis is thus only becoming louder and more prominent with his retirement party taking place on the biggest stage in the NFL, but it's always been part of the Lewis narrative and likely always will.