Minutes after the Baltimore Ravens beat the New England Patriots to advance to the Super Bowl, Seth Meyers, the head writer for “Saturday Night Live,” tweeted: “Baltimore vs. San Francisco! Brother vs. Brother! The Wire vs. Full House!”
The message linking Baltimore, “The Wire” and the Ravens resonated nationally with more than 3,000 retweets. Terrell Suggs repeated the connection while speaking at Super Bowl Media Day in New Orleans.
Great sports franchises do reflect their communities — or, maybe, they shape the perception of their communities among the millions who watch them on TV in championship games. Think of the big-bucks arrogance associated with the New York Yankees in their glory years, or the God-blessed-Texas mix of Sun Belt sanctimony and sexy cheerleaders when the Dallas Cowboys were anointed America’s Team.
There is a shared identity among the Ravens, “The Wire” and Baltimore, analysts say. But it’s not as clean and simple as Meyers’ social media potshot might suggest.
At the center of it is the complex issue of race and the complicated persona of Ray Lewis, the face of the franchise for more than a decade. A blue-collar image and perennial underdog status are also part of that identity.
The discussion starts with the athlete NFL Network senior producer Bardia Shah-Rais calls professional football’s “star of stars.” From his “war paint” to his Squirrel Dance to the Under Armour billboards on Interstate 95, Lewis has become not just the face of the Ravens but the media face of Baltimore.
“If you are talking about Baltimore’s image and the role the Ravens play in it, you have to start with Ray Lewis, because he’s been the face of the franchise for so long,” says Nsenga Burton, Goucher College professor and editor-at-large for the African-American-themed website The Root.
“And he is a complicated figure,” she adds, “because initially he was thought of as this thug after he got caught up in that situation at an Atlanta nightclub. But he’s had an opportunity to make himself over in the same way that the city is trying to make itself over. People can identify with someone who has made some poor choices and has tried to change his life and has really done that. Typically, blacks are not allowed to reinvent themselves in the way that Ray Lewis has been. See Michael Vick, right?”
In rooting for Lewis and the Ravens, viewers are rooting for Baltimore and their pride in its renaissance as well, says the founder of The Burton Wire, a website focused on the African diaspora.
“We’ve had to work hard to overcome perceptions that Baltimore is a city that’s overridden by crime and a lot of apathetic, angry black folks,” she says. “And those us who have worked to overcome that see Ray Lewis’ investment in the Ravens’ winning as being similar to our investment in Baltimore.”
For the record, Baltimore’s population is 64.3 percent African-American, and crime — though high — has been in decline the last 10 years. While Fortune 500 companies have left the city, there have been major development in Harbor East and genuine revitalization in neighborhoods ranging from Hampden to Canton.
Further, many of the manufacturing jobs that have disappeared in Baltimore, as they have in cities across the country, are being replaced by 21st-century workplace opportunities in one of the most vibrant university, research, medical and nonprofit sectors in the nation.
Nevertheless, a negative and racially charged perception of the city is furthered by critics like state Del. Patrick L. McDonough, the Baltimore and Harford County Republican who in May distributed a news release with the headline: “Black Youth Mobs Terrorize Baltimore on Holidays.”
Analysts say you cannot have an honest discussion of the Ravens, Baltimore or “The Wire” without talking frankly about race. But honest talk about race is often hard to find in the media.
“Some people are uncomfortable, I would argue, with black people being the face of anything,” Burton says, sounding a note heard regularly in discussions about those on the right who question the legitimacy of President Barack Obama as the face of the nation.
“I mean, outside of the Ravens, how many teams even have someone who is black as the face of the franchise?” she asks.
Not any of these other playoff teams: the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers or Indianapolis Colts.
In a majority-black city with a black mayor and majority-black City Council, it seems perfectly natural that its professional team would be led by a black star. But don’t expect everyone in the country to react positively to it, given the NFL’s and their TV partners’ history of celebrating the Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys of the league.
HBO’s “The Wire” encountered the same issues in attempting to reflect the diversity of Baltimore. It featured black actors and it offered black characters as police officers, criminals and politicians who were complex, multifaceted human beings viewers came to care about. That was one of the series’ many gifts to American culture, but it was also the reason some TV executives and analysts privately said it would never find a hit-size audience.
That was also the case with NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street,” another Baltimore-made quality drama. Again, black stars and brilliant complex black characters like Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher).
In fact, one of the replies to Meyers’ tweet was: “Detective Frank Pembleton vs. Detective Lt. Mike Stone? Pembleton 3-to-1. #HomicideLifeOnTheStreetsOfSanFrancsico.”
Maybe Twitter is the way we now talk about race in the media without having to mention it. We can blame the omission on the demands of brevity.
Lewis is a lot like one of those characters on “The Wire,” a criminal by virtue of pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in the Atlanta murder cases who now has a street named after him and is seen as a source of inspiration by some. That’s a complicated identity in a world of one-dimensional media labels. Lewis further complicates his image by marching to his own drummer and doing so with a red-hot fervor on television at a time when the medium celebrates being ironic, detached and “cool.”
Ravens fans got a taste last week of how complicated a figure Lewis is in the minds of many outside the city. Forbes magazine contracted the social media research firm Fizziology to look at Lewis’ image on the eve of the Super Bowl.
“For all the great storylines attached to the 2013 Super Bowl ... one player is the recipient of mixed feelings from the masses,” the subsequent article said.
Fizziology found “that even with Lewis’ consistent devotion and declaration of his faith, combined with his excellent play on the field, approximately 1 in 5 U.S. social mentions around the linebacker were analyzed as negative or mixed.”
And about one out of every two of the negative or mixed mentions referenced “his involvement” in the Atlanta deaths.
There is, of course, more to the image of Baltimore than just Ray Lewis and race.
Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain agrees that color plays a major role in the image of the Ravens. But in his mind, it’s blue, not black, that matters most — as in blue collar.
“Hard work, hard work, hard work and being an underdog — that’s what I think the team represents and that’s what Baltimore represents,” he said Thursday. “It’s a blue-collar city that understands what a hard day’s work is. And that’s what the Baltimore Ravens are: a blue-collar team that knows what a hard day’s work is. And is always the underdog.”
McClain will be representing the Ravens and Baltimore in another TV production Feb. 8 when the USA channel premieres “NFL Characters Unite.”
In the film, “Jameel is paired with an 8-year old boy from Baltimore, Jesse, who faces similar issues to what Jameel endured as a teen — both grew up in poverty, facing homelessness and hardship,” the channel says.
McClain’s analysis of Baltimore is echoed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who says both the Ravens and the city have often been “undervalued.”
“Baltimore has a history of resilience and guts and triumphs over major obstacles,” she says. “That mirrors the history of the Ravens.”
At the heart of that narrative, which she hopes will prevail tonight in New Orleans, is Lewis.
“Ray is a great example of focus, persistence and the power of motivation,” she says.
Part Cedric Daniels. Part Omar Little. As complicated and contradictory as the city he will represent to many of the expected 112 TV million viewers tonight. #LastRideEndsInGlory.
@davidzurawik on Twitter