NEW ORLEANS — Controversy surrounds Ray Lewis again, because of course it does. This is how it always is with him, isn't it?
You probably made up your mind about him long ago. Most football fans have. An all-time great or an all-time outlaw. Charismatic or self-obsessed. A football warrior or a 21st-century drama queen.
Either way, Lewis is this Super Bowl's most dominant personality. Along with the Har-Bowl angle, Lewis is one of two inescapable story lines in our country's grandest sporting event, which is quite an accomplishment considering he plays a defensive position devalued by the NFL's tilt toward passing.
But he has the upcoming retirement. The missing white suit from two unsolved murders 12 years ago for which Lewis paid a settlement. And now, refreshed accusations from Sports Illustrated of banned substance use.
"I wouldn't give that report or him any of my press," said Lewis, a Ravens linebacker.
Lewis has made himself a focal point here, again, and the whole thing is picking up momentum in no small part because of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's public declaration that he'd like to hire Lewis as a "special adviser" and that he's "a tremendous voice of reason."
Lewis has long been one of the NFL's most visible ambassadors, and that strikes so many as wrong. They're missing a critical point.
Reporters asked Ray Lewis about the latest swirling controversy during media day here, and his answer gives you a hint on who the man is.
His first reaction — and you have to believe he and Ravens officials developed a plan before the questions — was to ignore it. Avoid answering. He called it a 2-year-old story, even if the SI story said he used the banned substance this season to return as quickly as possible from a triceps injury.
So he derided the question, and said he wouldn't lessen "my speeches or my moment." He referenced a maniacal work ethic, and that he never failed a test. But whether it's parsing words or not, he didn't say: "No, I never used or was given any banned substance."
But if you know Lewis at all, which is to say if you're a football fan at all, you knew he could not leave it there.
To review: He got angry about defending himself from a charge he didn't completely deny. And then he went on to talk about one of the team cooks — Miss Gloria — complimenting the team's manners. And about a sick boy who has become a friend and source of inspiration.
Lewis is among the NFL's defining players and personalities of the last two decades, and he used the platform in the Superdome to wrestle back what he openly called his moment. So much of the talk around Lewis has been about whether you should root for him. Whether you believe him. Whether he's worthy of your adulation.
In the end, it would be very difficult to prove Lewis took the substance. And besides, if we follow Goodell's lead, we see another critical point that people seem to be missing.
The NFL is exhilarating, and it is captivating. It is the greatest spectacle in American sports, with an ugly underbelly we're learning more about every day. The operation looks glorious on Sundays, but there are hidden mechanisms and sacrifices and even lies that fans only see occasionally but keep the trains moving on time.
Sound like a particular linebacker you know?
Goodell had some within the sport wondering about his wisdom when he talked of hiring Lewis as an adviser. This was the commissioner of a wildly successful and powerful sports league making an official ambassador of a fabulous linebacker with undying charisma who settled a civil lawsuit stemming from a double homicide and who has faced multiple charges of banned substance use.
You know, when you think of it like that, Goodell may have just identified football's perfect representative — for better and worse.