Are professional athletes abusing their public-image power?

By Tyler Vincent

City Editor

If you’re like most, you were seated with your family and/or friends watching the Ravens obliterate the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV on Sunday.

If you’re like some, you were outraged to see Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis hoist both the Vince Lombardi and Super Bowl MVP trophies into the Tampa sky after the big game, shouting loud proclamations on how he and his defense were the “best ever.”

Just over a year ago, Lewis was charged with murder in connection with the death of two men who were stabbed outside an Atlanta nightclub, although prosecutors dropped the charge, according to a Jan. 29 Associated Press article. He plea bargained down to a misdemeanor, testifying against the people he was with that night, according to the televised trial.

The Lewis MVP is a fitting way for the NFL to put a lid on this season, which will be remembered not as the season of the Ravens, but the season of Rae Carruth, who was sentenced to at least 18 years for his role in the murder of his pregnant girlfriend Cherica Adams, according to a Jan. 25 Charlotte Observer article. Or of Mark Chmura, who is accused of sexually assaulting a minor at her post-prom party, according to a Jan. 29 AP article.

It was the season that saw Walter Payton’s single game rushing record broken by Corey Dillon of the Cincinnati Bengals, who was up on domestic violence charges for hitting his wife, but entered a rehab program instead of going to trial, according to a Jan. 19 AP article.

It was the season that changed the public perception of professional football from being a violent sport played by men, to a sport played by violent men.

Lewis’ MVP represents the crowning of a new poster boy in the NFL. He doesn’t have to be “your role model.” He doesn’t even have to be a law-abiding citizen.

A radio report, which prompted the anger of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, estimated that 21 percent of NFL football players have criminal records, and this Super Bowl, it seemed to be an accurate number. Those who were praying for a Raven defeat, if only to be spared the sight of Ray Lewis gloating, could find little solace on the other side of the field. The Giants personnel included quarterback Kerry Collins, who was arrested in 1998 on a DUI charge, according to a Jan. 23 AP article.

The professional athlete is in a position of power. Often, a player with exceptional talent and expertise in a given sport shows it at an early age. They are separated from the crowd. In some cases, teachers and other authority figures are more lax in grading and discipline.

Because athletes are held in such high regard in our society, they are often subjected to “special attention” by their peers. They attract women who are by societal standards “attractive,” and others want to be seen with them as a means of justifying their social relevance. Local, and in some cases national, media sing the praises of their deeds, elevating them to a “less than God, but more than man,” pedestal.

This is not a rant against athletics or the professional athletes who play them. It is merely a statement that the professional athlete holds a powerful position of considerable influence in our culture.

Power like that could turn lethal if it is left unchecked by reality. Just ask the family of Cherica Adams.

And in the middle of all this was the game itself, in which Lewis proved to be dominating enough to win the MVP. He has risen above the trials and tribulations of the past year. He walked into Tampa, dominated the game, collected the trophies and walked away. Just like he might have walked away from the stabbed bodies of Richard Lollar and Shorty Baker, which he was in close proximity to, one year ago.