Ray Lewis, the longtime defensive stalwart/crazy person of the Baltimore Ravens, might be playing in his final NFL game on Sunday. We could have said the exact same thing last week, or the week before that, but this weekend's game—where he’ll be playing the Patriots in Foxboro—really seems like it could be the end of the road. I’ve always loved Lewis because as insane and cartoonish as his pregame rituals could be, it all felt real. Professional football commentators tend to spew a lot of irrelevant filler about “heart” and “soul,” but for Lewis, all of that hyperbole was accurate. He was a profound combination of athleticism, football IQ, and emotions, a man who could inspire terror in other men just by lining up on the other side of the field. It sounds hokey, but you could sense Lewis’s passion thousands of miles away on a couch or in a sports bar. There was something about the way he played that transcended all the usual cynicism we have about intangibles—he didn’t look silly at all doing his little dance. As someone who identifies as an atheist, his postgame Bible-quoting interview in Denver last weekend gave me legitimate chills.
Lewis is retiring after the Ravens finally lose this postseason and almost certainly joining ESPN’s vaguely myopic Monday Night Countdown cabal as an analyst. On the surface this totally makes sense: Lewis is the exact sort of person you want talking about/occasionally shouting about football on television, and he never seemed like a player who would disappear after retirement—if he wasn’t chatting with other ex-jocks in a TV studio, he’d be delivering motivational speeches to high schoolers or coming out with a brand of cologne that smelled like burning rubber and wolf sweat.
But I can’t help but be a little worried.
I am worried because I like Lewis in the same way I like—or used to like—Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq’s more than a legendary athlete, he’s a mythological figure who was totally believable playing a superhero and a genie (OK, not totally believable). Like Lewis, everyone knew Shaq was going to go into TV after his career were over, and sure enough, he joined TNT’s Inside the NBA roundtable, which made perfect sense. But Shaq the pundit wasn’t the goofy, casually antagonistic Buddha we thought we knew. He was instead a giant human being lurking in the corner who absolutely refused to enunciate any of his words. His personality was complete wallpaper. There wasn’t any playful shit-talk, or any meaningful analysis.
These days, sadly Shaq is best known for saying stupid things. Like here, where he says that Dwight Howard is an inferior center because he plays a pick ‘n’ roll “European” style—to be a great center, he says, you need to play with your back to the basket, which is nice “analysis” if you’re just looking for a reason to dis some guy you don’t like.
Yep, he’s saying he’d rather have Brook Lopez on his team then Dwight Howard. Dwight might not be the best or most sane player in the NBA, but Brook Lopez? C’mon, big fella.
As time went on it became increasingly clear that Shaq was not the man I remembered from the court and from his terrible, terrible movies. He had built his legacy on dancing in All-Star games, creating nicknames for himself, mocking other people, and being the most dominant big man of his generation—not making astute observations about who matches up best with the Spurs. For the kids who don’t remember Shaq the player, he’ll be now forever known as the mumbling, semi-coherent giant on cable NBA broadcasts.
Babies are being born right now who will grow up loving the NBA while knowing Shaq only as the boring guy on TV—in other words, he’ll be the Joe Morgan of basketball. I never ever watched Morgan play (he retired before I was born), so to me he will always be remembered as one of the most annoying, vapid personalities to ever call a baseball game. He’s the dude who would spend a full minute going over why giving up a leadoff walk is bad, the guy who ranted about nerds ruining the game anytime anyone brought up OPS. If you like having your intelligence underestimated, you loved ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball; if you were a smart fan, you probably watched those games on mute.
It’s a shame, because he’s also a guy who won two World Series, went to ten All-Star games, won five Golden Gloves, and got inducted into the Hall of Fame. But one of the first results that comes up when you google him is Fire Joe Morgan, a legendary, influential sports blog founded on the principle of making fun of the clueless sports media, and, obviously, getting Joe Morgan fired.
Not every athlete who steps into a TV job ruins his career. Usually such a transition is harmless, and occasionally it makes us appreciate someone more. Trent Dilfer, for instance, has actually become a terrific analyst for ESPN—not bad for someone who was previously known for being one of the worst quarterbacks to ever win a Super Bowl. It’s disappointing, though, when a post-playing career ruins your previous perception of who an athlete is. Ray Lewis, in my mind, is almost a heroic figure, one of the few players that even the most cynical fans have respect for—he plays smart, he plays angry, and he loves the game. If he turns into a bumbling commentator who recites lame talking points and even gets those wrong, well, pretty soon that’s all he’ll ever be. I’m worried about Lewis because I want to remember him the way I do right now, as a ball of insane joy.