Ray Lewis is an extraordinary football player who will undoubtedly end up in the NFL Hall of Fame.
Since being taken in the first round of the 1996 NFL draft, Lewis has racked up 13 Pro-Bowl appearances, the 2000 Super Bowl Championship, the 2000 Super Bowl MVP award and countless other merits. Lauded for being loved by the NFL community, Lewis has also found himself mired in controversy.
A Jan. 14 article from The Pioneer Press recalls that in January 2000, Lewis was embroiled in allegations that he and two cohorts murdered two young men outside a club in Akron, Ohio. In a plea deal, Lewis was found guilty of less serious charges and his co-defendants were acquitted.
My point in recalling these events is simply that Lewis’ recent announcement of his retirement at the end of this year’s football season gives us an opportune moment to reflect on sports and how they impact our society.
In David Martin’s novel “Our American King,” a story that follows the hypothetical fall of the U.S. Government, he poignantly pointed out that when hard times hit, it will prompt us to be puzzled that we ever spent hours watching grown men throw a ball around.
Taking a moment to think as one unfamiliar with the phenomenon of sports, it might seem bizarre adults spend large amounts of money, dress up in costumes (otherwise known as jerseys), take painstaking care to faithfully memorize valuable statistics and so on. I am by no means making a normative judgment on what is time well spent, just registering something seems peculiar about the whole thing.
Digging deeper, our fanatical obsession with sports (for so many, that is not hyperbole) leaves an impression on children. As ESPN commentator LZ Granderson argues, our children, “See the loudest applause is for the kids on the field. They know people plan Super Bowl parties but mock the National Spelling Bee.”
Put more generally, there is nothing wrong with celebrating athletic achievement, but holding it above all else for children is unwise.
To be frank, I love sports, especially football. However, even I had to pause when I became aware of high school football players who raped a young girl in Steubenville, Ohio. It’s time we consider how our love for sports is being received by those actually playing the sports. Did the alleged rapists feel above the law as a result of the football-loving town’s adoration for them? More ominously, did they feel entitled to treat a woman in any way they so chose?
Let me take a moment here to acknowledge there are a wide variety of sports. But I spend most of my time contemplating the sports Americans deem worthy of our attention by popularity: mainly football and basketball.
Conceptually, I wonder what our sports say about us: We enjoy violence, hyper-masculinity and quick scoring? Moreover, are demographics in professional sporting leagues indicative of larger inequalities?
Obviously, this is all simply to go against the grain and challenge our conceptions of “sports.” If anything, Ray Lewis exemplifies American sports: driven, vicious, loved and a center of controversy.
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