IT WAS THE worst media sacking of a professional athlete since sports journalists raked Muhammad Ali over the coals in the 1960s.
That would be the skewering of Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who, if you believe what you read in the papers and hear on television and radio, is the model for Psychotic, Homicidal Pro Athletes With Knives. At least two letter writers to the New York Daily News voiced their opinion that Lewis was guilty of killing Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, two Decatur, Ga., men stabbed to death outside an Atlanta nightclub after Super Bowl XXXIV.
Fulton County prosecutors charged Lewis, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting with murder and aggravated assault in the deaths. They dropped charges against Lewis when only one of a wealth of witnesses - a convicted and admitted con artist - testified that the football star threw a punch but didn't stab anyone. Then the prosecutorial team contacted Lewis' lawyers and offered a plea bargain - his testimony against Sweeting and Oakley in exchange for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge. But Sweeting and Oakley were acquitted in what must have been the worst cases of prosecutorial incompetence in years.
None of that mattered to the media horde that has pilloried Lewis before Super Bowl XXXV and since. Lewis wasn't humble enough. He wasn't contrite enough about the two "victims." Lewis isn't a good role model for kids, they said in a clear case of journalistic unnecessary roughness.
Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated was one writer among many to wax righteous. Perhaps America's best columnist, Reilly joined the Bash Lewis Club in the issue that appeared just before the Super Bowl.
In a column titled "Fatal Distractions," Reilly contended that Lewis, Oakley and Sweeting left Baker and Lollar "bleeding on a street corner in Atlanta."
Lollar, according to the piece, was a hard-working barber awaiting the birth of his daughter. Baker was an artist who sent money home to his grandmommy.
Weeping, aren't you? Regular choirboys, Baker and Lollar, if we believe Reilly. No mention of their drug and firearm convictions, or of their friends' testimony that the two were part of a group that had consumed alcohol and several blunts - cigar wrappings filled with marijuana - that night. No mention of the at least five bags of marijuana police found on Baker. Not even a hint that these two walked toward Lewis' limousine shouting expletives and challenges to fight. And if you're wondering about that champagne bottle Baker used to crack open Oakley's head, forget it. You won't read about it in Reilly's column.
Nah, it's just a story of two wonderful, All-American boy-next-door lads who found themselves at the mercy of some vicious hombres one night. But Reilly stands by his column.
"I knew that Baker in the fight had hit [Oakley] with a champagne bottle," Reilly said in a telephone interview. "I had conflicting accounts of why he did that. It was unclear to me who started the fight. I don't know what [Baker and Lollar] did to contribute to the fight."
Reilly interviewed the woman Lollar was going to marry and some of both men's relatives for the column. Not exactly the most dispassionate and objective parties to rely on. He said he couldn't delve further into the characters of Baker and Lollar because there's only so much information he could get into one piece. He didn't write, Reilly said, about Lewis' other run-ins with the law either.
But why wait one year to write about this one?
"It's not so ironic if he's not in the Super Bowl," Reilly answered. "He's in the Super Bowl, the best player in the game, and I knew the media would make him into a god. I didn't want people to forget these two guys were dead."
That might be a valid point, except that's not what the media did. Reilly just became one in a series of sportswriters and broadcasters implying Lewis was guilty of something and giving only the partial story of what happened on that Atlanta street.
But at least Reilly had the guts and common decency to return calls about his column. Jay Thomas, host of a morning radio show on New York's WTJN, had on the air two days after the Super Bowl a woman who claimed to be Lollar's aunt and who brazenly claimed Lewis was guilty of killing him.
She flat-out lied about the testimony of several witnesses. I called Thomas' producer, told him the woman had lied and offered to come on the show to give a more balanced viewpoint. I received no return call.
I made a second call yesterday, and the producer said Thomas may have decided that the story was too old. Odd, considering he had Lollar's aunt on a full year after he was killed.
Lewis said in June he would have nothing further to say to the media on this matter. He stuck to his guns throughout some vicious, ugly and borderline libelous media coverage before and after the Super Bowl.
The main problem we media types have with him is that he refuses to jump through our hoop - or over our goal post. He wouldn't do that even if he liked us. I don't think he does.
Given our treatment of him, can we really blame him?