Who could have foreseen Lewis' image rehab?

The Baltimore Sun

If anyone had said to you seven years ago that today Ray Lewis would be hosting a radio show in the coming season, you'd probably ask how he can broadcast from state prison. That is, once you'd have stopped laughing.

Well, if Lewis can get a radio show - to add to the Madden game cover, the Sports Illustrated cover, the NFL Network appearances, the charitable foundation, the rankings atop the jersey sales, the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award and the status as the most popular pro athlete in Baltimore today - then Michael Vick's career can't automatically be counted out, either.

It's hard to imagine it now, because what's in front of us tends to take our complete attention away and skew any sense of perspective. But what Vick, his team and the NFL face with the indictment on federal charges related to dogfighting not only isn't the greatest crisis ever to involve the league and a star player, but it's also not even the greatest in the past decade.

You don't have to be from around here to remember how, in the calendar year 2000, the eyes of the entire football world were fixed on Atlanta. Coincidentally, that's where Vick plays, for now; then, it was the scene of two murders the week of the Super Bowl and of the resultant trial of Lewis and two codefendants for those murders.

It seemed at the time that whether Lewis beat the rap or not, his career and reputation would never recover. Nothing as heinous had ever hung over the head of a player that significant. The court of public opinion ruled against Lewis in much the way it has ruled against Vick now.

Now, look at him. Last week's announcement that ESPN Radio 1300 would carry Lewis from his Canton restaurant weekly during the season has been greeted favorably by his fans, and so far few, if any, objections have been heard.

It is one of the most remarkable celebrity image makeovers not only in sports history, but also in this history of this country - so enormous that even a rebound by Vick, who in rapid order has become one of the most reviled people in America, would still pale in comparison.

This is not to say, of course, that Lewis has been universally forgiven; the idea that Lewis is still playing, much less remaining as popular with fans and advertisers, continues to appall a significant segment of the public. Yet it is just as significant that he doesn't appall more of them, much less all of them.

Winning back the support he has was the culmination of a concerted effort by him to show that ... well, that he's not a murderer and that he's not so deficient in character that everyone needs to avoid him like he's radioactive.

It worked. If it wasn't impossible for Lewis, it won't be impossible for Vick.

Face it. Lewis earned the honor of the cover of the Madden 2005 game long after his court case had ended; Vick's appearance on the 2004 game cover came when the worst taint on his image was that his passes weren't accurate enough.

Just last season, Sports Illustrated anointed Lewis "God's linebacker" in a cover story detailing his personality conversion. Lewis' presence and respect among fellow players is such that they come to the Ravens to play with him - ask Steve McNair and Willis McGahee.

His "Summer Days" festival to benefit his charitable foundation remains wildly popular among the public and, critically, among sponsors. The long-term success of the restaurant is still up in the air, but it's still there, and the radio show likely will give it a boost.

And it almost goes without saying that on the average day, you see more Lewis jerseys around Baltimore than of all other players combined. You also see them in other cities, and it always is near the top of sales among all players'.

Saying Lewis has been forgiven is too strong, although in plenty of cases it fits. Saying he has been accepted back is more accurate.

But why?

Ask 100 people, you'll get 100 answers. Here, his most loyal fans will tell you it's because of who he is; that element is running strong in Atlanta for Vick, as well. Others might tell you he wasn't convicted of the crimes he was originally charged with, and that was good enough. Still others will focus solely on what he's done, particularly off the field, since then, and say that convinced them. Still others will say he was falsely accused and overzealously prosecuted in the first place, and that drew him to them - and that's a very powerful factor among some of Vick's supporters.

Along with that are the people who are disgusted by Lewis' continued and increasing visibility. Once upon a time, it seemed they were in the overwhelming majority, so much that throwing out the idea he'd someday be back not only as a dominant player, but also as a prominent endorser and a much-loved figure, would have been absolutely ridiculous.

Maybe this fall, when it's time to tune in his radio show, he'll explain how the ridiculous turned possible. And how if it can happen with him, it can happen with anybody. Even Michael Vick.


Points after -- David Steele

Early leader in the competition for who should send Michael Vick the biggest Christmas gift: Vince McMahon and the WWE, when the drug-screening results on Chris Benoit were released the same day Vick was indicted.

It had been a pretty good week for Maryland basketball alums - Joe Smith signing with the Bulls, Steve Francis returning to the Rockets. Then came Lonny Baxter's second gun charge in the span of a year.

It's going to be in August, it's a scrimmage, they're charging between $10 and $25 per ticket - and the Ravens-Redskins scrimmage will come close to a sellout, I'd be willing to bet right now.

Reportedly, the FBI is probing an NBA official who bet on games, including ones he officiated, with the mob possibly involved. C'mon, who wants to be the first to blame the whole thing on the "hip-hop culture"?

Hey, I've been kind of busy lately - Ripken's Hall of Fame induction, is that coming up soon?

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