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Ray of Hope for Redemption: How Did Pro Football Legend Ray Lewis Bounce Back From a Murder Rap?

By Scott Sobel, MA, Media Psychology; President, Media & Communications Strategies

Ray Lewis — a public relations phenomenon and enigma. A motivator and defensive genius both on and off the field. Now he is being accused of using deer antler spray as a performance-enhancing drug to repair a torn triceps. What? He deflects that charge as adeptly as he avoids the resurrected accusations about an old double murder charge. Ray accuses the accusers and pretty much says that any reporter asking questions about the homicide is a tool of the Devil.

The National Football League is on Ray Lewis’ team — big time! Sponsors can’t get enough of his face painted with anti-glare black and his war dance before he runs out on the field. He is an ad commercial machine, an iconic sports figure either snarling at opposing quarterbacks or being cast as a caring celebrity taking questions from a kid surrounded by inept sports reporters at a faux news conference (sound familiar? Maybe those damned inept reporters really ARE pawns of Satan).

"Ray Ray" is a shining star for his Baltimore Ravens, the NFL, youth football, religious commitment and sportswear. When he retires after the 2013 Super Bowl he is staring at the lucrative world of a role model and moneymaker, just waiting for his shoe-in selection as a Pro Football Hall of Fame middle linebacker.

In 2000 Ray Lewis was staring at a very, very different narrative — double murder and aggravated assault charges, serious prison time and the bleakest of futures after a lethal Atlanta nightclub brawl. Realistically, the only autographs Ray was signing then were his signatures on court documents and on checks for legal fees.

But, Ray beat his initial charges, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and made a deal to testify against two co-defendants. No one was ever convicted of the murders and the cases are still officially unsolved. Ray paid the NFL $250,000 for breaking the league’s ethics rules. Millions of dollars were reportedly paid to settle the civil suits of the victims’ families.

In an Baltimore Sun interview published most recently by USA Today, Lewis is quoted as saying about the incident: "I’m telling you, no day leaves this Earth without me asking God to ease the pain of anybody who was affected by that whole ordeal." he said. "He’s a God who tests people — not that he put me in that situation, because he didn’t make me go nowhere. I put myself in that situation." In debate that is a straw man tactic — deflecting an accusation by pointing to another, but not comparative, target. Rays Lewis handles this technique as easily as he shunts blockers.

Lewis’ legal and moral dilemmas have and are working themselves out but how in the world did he and his advisors fashion a personal and professional reputation redemption campaign of Biblical proportions? What has he done to pull off one of PR’s biggest turnarounds?

In this case, Lewis’ apologies in 2000 were not as free-wheeling nor as immediate as the latest I’m sorry scripts followed by celebrities caught more recently in various indiscretions. Remember, Lewis was caught up in court proceedings for months until he cut a deal with prosecutors and then still had probation and testifying to consider, along with his football issues.

1) What he did was put his head down for a period of time publicly and kept putting his head consistently into opponent’s bodies where the concussive impact yielded more tackles, fumbles and interceptions than almost anyone else playing the game. Lewis was selected to 13 Pro Bowls — he has been a spectacular football player.

His athletic success was then coupled with a gradual path of redemption in his personal life.

2) Lewis never crossed the law again, deer antler spray TBD.

3) He won the admiration and support of coaches, players and others in his field of professional and personal endeavor — for his supporters he is THE example of religious zeal, a motivator of peers and young athletes.

4) Other athletes and objective individuals comment consistently about how Ray is not only very giving with his time to others but also is surrounded by his own family, his own children, to the extent that he seems to have a bullet-proof reputation. Remember, just a few days ago another NFL player’s wife attacked Lewis’ position as a role model citing Lewis’ previous involvement in the murders and his fathering of multiple children outside of wedlock. That attack ended with an almost immediate apology by the attacker (how did that cheetah quick about-face happen? Who pressured whom there? Another lessons-learned story, if behind-the-scenes details are ever uncovered).

5) Ray has been increasingly applauded by other professional associations and especially the NFL.

6) Lewis has taken responsibility for his previous mistakes of associating with the wrong people and not reacting correctly after being caught (he was convicted of the obstruction of justice misdemeanor, after all).

7) The straw-man tactic has been working — question Ray and you are questioning The Lord at the behest of Beelzebub.

8) Lewis is no longer consistently questioned by follow-the-pack news media because he has such an accumulated track record of success and his total persona can’t be easily defined – reporters like clear-cut heroes and villains.

Why are the NFL and many journalists and sponsors not only giving Ray a pass but are actually going in the opposite direction by putting him on a pedestal? Could these entities really want to show that sincere contrition and associated actions should be rewarded? Maybe, but I’ll be more cynical.

Here are a few more ideas and educated guesses about why Ray has done so well through his relations with his publics. Authorities did not continue to prosecute Ray and once their deal was cut, prosecutors stopped public chatter — he got out of that spotlight, and fast. The NFL and sponsors have somehow taken the temperature of the paying public over the years (focus groups, private polls, media audience reaction?) and as Ray performed well on and off the playing field, his public acceptance began to reach positive levels and now has skyrocketed to the heights. This was a gradual process. We see other repentant celebrities try to short circuit their path to redemption by lightening fast apologies which are not backed up by sincere changes in their lives.

Other celebrities of all demographic persuasions have not done nearly as well simply because what they said and what they did were not as believable as Ray Lewis’ formula. Tiger and Lance take note. Ray connected with our sense of our own fallibility and we, the public, judged him to be sincere and forgave him.

Of course, most reporters don’t want to gadfly too much because they live and die through their access to Ray and to his supporters, not the least of which is the NFL.

Quick PR fixes may yield limited results, depending on the severity of the transgression, but there is nothing that pays off like demonstrative actions and sincerity over a reasonable period of time when you can show you are walking the walk and not just talking the talk.

As Crisis PR practitioners and Reputation Management counselors, I recommend we look closely at Ray Lewis’ story and decide thoughtfully what to advise our clients and, maybe more importantly, what is the short -term, mid-term and long-term time frames for pulling the trigger on processes that will yield redemptive success. Of course, Ray’s story and situation may be the perfect storm mixture of actions and reactions that have taken him to where he is now. Still, his scenario is worth a harder look as we counsel our clients about how to be prudent and patient when considering PR or, in this case, Public Raylations.

Scott Sobel is president of Media & Communications Strategies, Inc., a Washington, DC-based public relations firm that manages reputation and communications challenges of all kinds worldwide. He is also a former corporate public relations practitioner and major market and TV network investigative journalist with a Media Psychology MA from Touro University Worldwide

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