Ray Lewis will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday evening, the result of a vote by the Hall of Fame committee made up of 48 of the most experienced NFL journalists in the business. Most of the men and women voting in that room in Minnesota in February, as well as others in our profession, had the opportunity over the last 18 years to question Lewis about his conviction on charges of obstruction of justice related to the slayings of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar in Atlanta during Super Bowl week in 2000. But rarely over those 18 years was Lewis ever pushed by members of the NFL media to respond seriously to questions about his actions that night, about the missing white coat, about the deaths of Baker and Lollar.
I get it. Press conferences are awkward affairs, and everyone there has questions to ask, stories to write. When a player ends a media scrum abruptly because he doesn’t like a question, the reporter can feel as though he has denied his colleagues the opportunity to do their jobs. Yet press conferences are often the only chance to ask prominent players necessary questions that hold them accountable and might make them uncomfortable. That’s why last week during a media scrum at Patriots training camp, Ben Volin of the Boston Globe asked Tom Brady about Julian Edelman’s PED suspension and connection to Brady trainer Alex Guerrero. Brady brushed off the question, and promptly ended the interview session.
Volin faced criticism from fans who accused him of grandstanding. This is by design. The NFL and its teams prefer to limit media opportunities, as much as possible, to group settings, in part to suppress reporters and prevent them from asking the questions that make subjects feel uncomfortable.
I faced this dilemma in January 2013, during my first season on the NFL beat. It was Lewis’s last season in the NFL, and the Ravens were making a playoff run that would ultimately end in a Super Bowl victory. The NFL commissioner was talking about Lewis in glowing terms, discussing a future role in the league office for the linebacker. My editor at USA Today, Kevin Manahan, sent investigative reporter Brent Schrotenboer to interview the family of the Atlanta victims, to see how they felt about Lewis and the praise he was receiving. It is customary and ethical to give the subject of such a story an opportunity to comment, the chance to respond to criticism. My job was to get a comment from Lewis on the family’s position that he was not forgiven for his role in the killings.
I considered going through the team with the request, but I knew the relationship the media relations staff had with Lewis, and I doubted I’d get a response. I thought about asking the question at his weekly press conference, but those occasions drew 30 to 40 reporters at the time, and I didn’t want to get in the way of them doing their jobs. I thought I’d be accused of grandstanding, and I thought it would be awkward to ask such an explosive question before such a large audience. So I did something that was against the unwritten rules. I went to Ray’s locker on a day he wasn’t scheduled to speak to media, and I asked him if he had a moment to speak privately. I told him I had a sensitive question. These are direct quotes from the notes we later sent to the NFL:
“Ray, may I speak to you privately about something serious?” I asked. “Just go ahead,” he said. I continued: “We’re doing a story with interviews of the families of the victims in Atlanta. I have a few questions for you, and I want to give you an opportunity to comment.” Said Lewis: “Are you serious?” I continued: “Yes. It’s our responsibility to give you a chance to comment. Out of fairness to you.”
“You want to talk to me about something that happened 13 years ago, right now?” Lewis shot back. “Who’s that fair to, me or you?” I told him it was fair to him. “You’re a public figure, and a subject of an emotionally charged story,” I said. “You should have the opportunity to comment.” Said Lewis: “Respectfully, this is my space, you need to go find your space right now.”
I said okay and walked out of locker room. A Ravens media relations staffer followed me into the hallway. “Robert,” he said, “if you ever pull some bulls--- like that, you will never come in this locker room again.” I told him I didn’t understand, and he pressed harder, sticking his finger in my face. “First of all, you know Ray is off limits,” he said. “Second of all, why are you asking questions about murders that happened 13 years ago?” I told him all I did was ask a question, and Lewis declined comment. “That’s it,” he said. “You’re not going back in that locker room today. Get out of here.”
Another media relations staffer then walked up to me. ”What are you asking questions about that for?” he asked me. “Why is that a story?” I said, “You really want me to explain that?” He nodded. I’d been reading my Society of Professional Journalists code, the one they taught us in college, in preparation for just such a question. I had an answer: “Because our responsibility is to give voice to the voiceless, and to tell the story of the diversity of the human experience boldly.” He was unimpressed. “You should get out of here if he says you can’t go back in,” he said.
My editors went to the league, and then to the Ravens, demanding an apology. None came. My credential, however, was waiting for me for that week’s playoff game in Denver. I went into the Ravens locker room on Saturday after they won that game in overtime. I walked over to outside linebacker Paul Kruger for an interview. Then a Ravens PR staffer and linebacker Terrell Suggs called Kruger over. When he returned to his locker, he said he couldn’t talk to me. “Sorry, gotta go with the vets,” he said. I walked over to the staffer. We argued. Players around us raised their voices at me. Then Lewis walked out in a towel. He put a hand on my shoulder and delivered a line I’ll never forget.
“Whatever you’re saying, I forgive you,” Lewis told me. “You were No. 1 in my prayers last night. You don’t have to apologize.”
I said, “I’m not sorry, and I’m not going to apologize for doing my job. If you want to have a private conversation, I’m all for it.” Lewis turned away, and two teammates attempted to shove me out of the locker room, with the PR guy standing between them, facing me instead of turning the players away. I realized I wasn’t going to accomplish anything there, and I walked out.
For 13 years, Ray Lewis had hidden from his history. He hid behind his talent. He hid behind his religion. Most effectively, he hid behind his team’s PR staff. His case isn’t rare. The league insulates players in protective bubbles, and in doing so creates its own warped sense of morality that reporters are expected to adhere to. In this bubble, a story about the lasting consequences of a player being convicted of obstruction of justice related to the death of two men can seem outlandish, even predatory on the part of the media organization. In the eyes of Ravens players and staffers, we were out to dirty Ray Lewis. They refused to acknowledge the way he’d dirtied himself and dodged questions in the public sphere for so long. For two far-away families, the deaths were devastating, life-altering events. To the Ravens, they were ancient history.
So Ray Lewis will now be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, having never addressed his actions in a way that wasn’t stage-managed, mainly because he didn’t have to. The NFL’s public relations machine made that possible, by creating an environment that limits player availability and bullies reporters who attempt to hold rich, powerful men accountable for their misdeeds.
It’s ironic that pro football writers, whose responsibilities include holding subjects like Lewis accountable, are the ones who put him in the Hall. It’s not their job, according to the bylaws, to judge players for off-field behavior. Just as it’s not the Ravens’ job to ensure their players are made available to answer for their actions. Everyone has an excuse. They’re all just following directions.
But maybe now that the press conferences and media availabilities are over, and the only person he has to answer to is himself, Lewis will get up on the dais and do the right thing. Maybe he’ll find the courage to address the questions he and others have fought so hard to avoid.
Ray, I encourage you to pray on it.
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