Ray Lewis was a pretty great football player. We can agree on this, I have no doubt. We can differ on how long it has been since he was at his peak (Michael David Smith at Football Outsiders noted that he “isn’t what he used to be” back in 2004), we can debate how, by definition, a middle linebacker has less effect on a game than a lineman or even a defensive back, we can wonder whether Lewis came back from his torn triceps too early and might not be helping the Ravens’ playoff chances at this very second … but no one’s going to say that Ray Lewis isn’t a Hall of Famer and a legend in the city of Baltimore. The guy has earned it.
But I have absolutely no idea why anyone thinks he’s going to be good at talking about football on television.
When Lewis announced his retirement (at the end of the season, whenever that is) last week, the news came hand-in-hand with the signing of a deal: He would be joining ESPN next season as a commentator, likely on the channel’s “Monday Night Countdown” show. ESPN, as they are particularly skilled at doing, made themselves a part of a big news story; you couldn’t really talk about Lewis retiring without talking about ESPN, so mission accomplished.
For all the rumblings you still hear about Lewis’ legal issues back in 2000, Lewis has undeniably made the world a better place in the last decade. His charity work goes beyond the typical athlete boilerplate; many believe his work to have been invaluable for that troubled city. And it doesn’t take much prompting for his teammates to wax rhapsodic about him. He’s obviously liked by the media; I enjoyed how USA Today’s Chris Strauss referred to Lewis as having “well-documented loquaciousness.” I’m just not sure what he’s going to do for us, the people watching television.
If there’s one thing that most athletes-turned-studio-commentators have in common, it’s that they are popular among the media … which is to say, they’re extremely skilled at calling attention to themselves. Mike Ditka, Keyshawn Johnson, Cris Carter, Michael Irvin, the brothers Sharpe: These are guys who know how to self-promote.
And there might be nobody better at that than Ray Lewis. Even as a Lewis fan myself, his self-aggrandizing in recent years has reached Schilling-esque levels. (Schillian? Schillful?) It’s difficult to find a game Lewis hasn’t been wired up for in recent years -- 40 percent of his uniform yesterday might have been microphone -- and Lewis has made certain that his public profile, whether through funny commercials with Paul Rudd or the weird video opening of Madden 2013 (in which Lewis debuts what I assume would be his wrestling entrance video), was well protected no matter what happened on the field. Then there’s that dance. You could see his pregame, sendoff dance yesterday (and the subsequent one-last-play on the last play of the game) as a fitting coda to a long, successful career, Michael Jackson moonwalking one last time. Or you could see it as a grown man, a 37-year-old adult, dancing around like a damned loon to make certain that everyone looks at him one last time. The genius of Lewis is that it’s probably both.
Now, I have no particular issue with athletes drawing attention to themselves. They are, after all, entertainers, and I’d rather see them dance and gyrate and have fun than see Roger Goodell fine them to make corporate sponsors happy. But I am not sure this should be a qualification for quality football analysis.
I just haven’t seen any evidence that Lewis has any particular skills in that area. He hasn’t been much of an off-the-field trash talker -- all I can remember is him telling the Jets, “this game ain’t played through tongues” a few years ago, and thank God he’s right on that one -- and his on-field talk has been of the mock-heroic, “WE’RE ALL MEN HERE! WE ARE WARRIORS!” business that I’m sure is inspiring on the field but has proven to get tiresome quickly in the studio. Telling example from the Titans’ Brad Hopkins: “When he trash talks, it was almost like your dad telling you that you didn’t do something, and I’m older than him.
“He doesn’t talk about your mom or something like that. But he questions the heart of your competitiveness. He makes you wonder what you are doing standing on the field.” That sounds like something that would totally get in my head if I were playing. But I’m not playing, and neither is the viewing audience. We’d rather you break down the blitz package or, at the very least, tell us if our fantasy team is going to win.
Listen, maybe Ray Lewis will surprise. Maybe he’s a secret Charles Barkley, or Cris Collinsworth, or David Cone, or Chris Webber, or Al Leiter, or even Rodney Harrison: Maybe he’ll be a sharp, incisive, cutting, intelligent presence, out of nowhere. But right now, it looks like Lewis is being hired as an icon, as a representative of how the NFL (and ESPN) tries to portray the sport, rather than someone with legitimate value to the viewer.
I’m sure the whole crew will be reverential to Lewis when he’s on set, and just let him do his thing. Honestly, that’s sort of what I’m afraid of.
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Point is: The value of athlete commentators always seems to be far higher among the people who run television shows than the people who watch them. Don’t listen to me, though: I never played the game!
Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.