As sports observers, in an effort to make ourselves feel that sports are more significant than they are, maybe, we often look for a moral component to weave into the narrative. We look at the field of play, of course, and then the life off the pitch. We search for a quality, or even just a moment of a perceived quality, where a player becomes emblematic of the evil guy you believe/want him to be.
Hating guys is often less trouble, since there's not the kind of risk that goes hand in hand with watching your beloved hero inevitably fail. In football, the guys I've always hated most have been good. Very good. Brady, Revis, Marino, Emmitt. Above all, we hate guys because they're good. Because they've made a habit of making our squad look like bitches. Because hating them is so much fun.
Hating a player for being good alone is rarely enough fun, though. Sometimes you just need a heel. The moral component of a guy being utterly terrible is often a necessity. Watching a sport, especially one as infuriatingly inconsistent with its rules as the NFL, is easier with a heel; a guy you can verbally douche upon with a moral righteousness to go with your over-consumption of Pabst and/or whiskey and/or ESPN. The heel allows you to swim in an Olympic-sized pool of sanctimony as we moralize over the lives of men we pay to subject themselves to repeated blunt force trauma. It allows all of it to seem more than what it probably really is: utterly insignificant and arguably inhuman in its brutality.
We rightly look at these circumstances - the grieving mother, the killings unpunished, the superstar living in a world of wealth seemingly far from the kind of pain still felt in the families of Lewis' purported victims - and feel anger and a palpable sense that justice was not achieved. And Lewis doesn't help himself, generally. Just the other day, he made it significantly easier to loathe as he said, in essence, he did no wrong because good things don't happen to bad people. I'm still reeling a little bit over that one.
What I've seen too often, though, is a concerning tendency of fans and observers of the game to take potshots at the process which led to his guilty plea, his testimony, and the ultimate settlement of the subsequent civil case. People have collectively looked at that result and have then collectively bemoaned the system of justice that allowed it to happen. Dismissing the result - a plea, his associates' acquittal and a civil settlement in which Lewis admitted no fault - people, myself included for a time, have jokingly called him a murderer. There's scant evidence to support that, apart from missing clothes and his direction to those on his car not to tell the police anything (both of which could just as easily be explained by a desire to protect someone in the car, rather than himself), but a lack of evidence doesn't much matter in the court of public opinion. Here, we judge based on feelings in our gut and the sympathy we try to exude as we read about a mother's first trip to her decades-dead son's grave site. Here, the admissibility of evidence, the unreliability of hearsay and the credibility issues surrounding a recanting witness are of little import because, fuck, we think Ray Ray must have paid those guys off. To the extent we even care whether there is a good reason, we base that belief of conspiracy on next to nothing.
This is the justice system we have, for better or worse. Our prosecutors must step up and do their jobs, but sometimes even that is impossible if someone fails to testify or some other evidence is missing. In crowded district attorneys' offices, cases pile high; some are easy and some are hard and some have purely innocent victims and some have victims who were hurt during a big brawl which one of them arguably started. And then, even when you have a relatively strong case, you still have to present it to a jury and get all of them to agree. It's an enormous mess.
It's a mess, it's frustrating, but it's what we do in America and it has to be that way. We don't throw people in jail unless we're absolutely sure. Our justice arises not from our ability to convict the guilty, but to protect the innocent from such a fate. We guarantee fair trials, the exclusion of evidence that would be overly prejudicial or unreliable, and an assurance that a man acquitted of charges, like Ray Lewis, need not worry about defending himself on those charges again.
Except, that's not enough for us, is it? Especially when we're amped up to resent a guy who is already so dominant on the field of play. When the system failed to oblige us and confirm our own beliefs about Ray - beliefs formed from a distance, without access to all the relevant facts, biased by our hate for him on the field - we resented it. We called it a failure of public service.
I'm not sure what to think of Ray Lewis. I don't know whether he killed someone or whether he knows who did and lied. But, when the District Attorney's Office determined that they couldn't prove he murdered anyone and that he was still useful as a witness, and when the the jury then determined that the prosecution hadn't established, beyond a reasonable doubt, that two associates were murderers, it wasn't a failure of American justice. It was a victory.
That which could not be established was not, and men who we were not sure to be murderers remained free.
Simple. Frustrating. Necessary.
So as people continue to chide Lewis for something he was legally determined not to have done, to stomp their feet about a system that, for all intents and purposes, worked exactly as it should, and to allow themselves to be swept up by a narrative filled with emotion, rather than discernible fact, I'll be shaking my head and wishing the court of public opinion took itself seriously enough to judge this one a little bit more fairly.