NEW ORLEANS -- Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has faced so many tests during his 17-year career that the latest one is starting to feel relatively undaunting. It started on Tuesday with allegations that he used a banned substance and ended somewhere around midmorning Wednesday, with the future Hall of Famer artfully squashing the accusations. We all knew Lewis would be the headliner in this year's Super Bowl. What we learned on Wednesday is that he's too big to be touched by this level of scandal.
This really isn't about whether Lewis did or did not take a banned substance found in deer antler spray in hopes of recovering faster from a torn triceps. We'll never know the truth about that story, and Lewis will be retired from the game in only a few more days. This is about how we both view and treat our greatest stars in the NFL. Men as popular as Lewis become nearly untouchable on a stage as grand as the Super Bowl.
You could see that much when Lewis strode to the dais for his news conference on Wednesday. Over the course of 15 to 20 minutes, he faced questions about his alleged connection to Mitch Ross, the co-owner of a company called Sports with Alternatives to Steroids, and Lewis used each inquiry as a chance to spin the story into one of cowardly haters trying to ruin a team's dream. "I don't need it," Lewis said. "My team doesn't need it. And the 49ers don't need it. It shows you how people attack you from the outside. Just to entertain [the accusations], I won't do it."
Lewis also talked about being "agitated" instead of angry, while adding that discussing the allegations this week "is one of the most embarrassing things we can do on this kind of stage." If you listened closely enough, you could hear the distinct message he was sending with such comments. He was telling the world how things really work. He was reminding us that the court of public opinion was going to rule in his favor long before anybody ever posed a question about this story. As he said, he "was too blessed to be stressed."
And you know what? He's right. The story of Ray Lewis chasing a Super Bowl in his final season has been easy to love and impossible to ignore from the moment he announced he was calling it quits. Football fans in Baltimore -- and around the league -- loved the idea of Lewis ending his career in the same way as Denver's John Elway and Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis. It's touching when a great player leaves on top. It lets us all feel warm and fuzzy at the end of a long season.
The power of that narrative is what makes it difficult for this alleged PED story to gain traction. Yes, people are talking about it on television and talk radio, but they've got hours of airtime to fill. A better indication of the lack of damage this story has caused could be found in the amount of pressure Lewis appeared to feel while answering questions about it. Given how much he was smiling on Wednesday afternoon, he seemingly didn't lose a minute of sleep over any of this.
Lewis said his teammates hadn't been distracted by the news, and Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he didn't see any frustration in his star player. "He's a singularly focused individual," said Harbaugh. "He understands what's important, and that there's nothing to this. It's nothing that he's ever been involved with, and it's too bad somebody was given the chance to get free publicity out of this."
It's almost certain that Lewis also knows something else is working in his favor: the worshipful nature of NFL fans. No sport has more people who are willing to forgive the sins of its players than pro football. We love the game so much that we easily side with the stars who entertain us on Sundays. Just ask the New Orleans Saints faithful. You'd be hard-pressed to find one person among them who believes the team did anything wrong regarding the bounty scandal, which became nonstop news for most of the past year.
The fact is that football fans care very little about performance-enhancing drugs. It doesn't taint this sport the same way it does baseball or cycling, and it almost feels acceptable on some level. It's as if people inherently understand the risks these players take with their bodies. Those same fans seem willing to forgive the whiff of impropriety in football in ways that baseball fans will never accept.
It also would take far more to taint Lewis on football's biggest stage. This doesn't come close to Falcons safety Eugene Robinson soliciting a prostitute the night before Super Bowl XXXIII, or Raiders center Barret Robbins vanishing two days before Super Bowl XXXVII and then missing the game. This is a sketchy business owner videotaping a phone call with arguably the game's greatest middle linebacker and having the story drop five days before the nation's grandest sporting event. Instead of looking like the villain in all this, the timing of the story and the questionable credibility of the accuser literally turned Lewis into an unsuspecting victim.
The way Lewis spoke on Wednesday -- with the same evangelical fervor that has become his trademark -- indicates how strongly he believes that this time belongs to his team. He also believes it belongs to the 49ers, the NFL and all the loyal, hard-working fans who pay good money to connect with this game. As for the people who want to throw stones, point fingers and investigate too deeply, well those party-poopers have no place at the table. In Lewis' eyes, they don't seem to get what is really happening here.
This story of Ray's last ride was written the minute Lewis announced his retirement. It gained momentum with every postseason win by the Ravens, and it's been entrenched from the day they arrived in this town. Even the 49ers can see that much, as tight end Vernon Davis said, "I'm sure Ray has a lot of fans and support through all of this. I also definitely think he didn't do what they're saying he did because he wouldn't do anything to hurt his team."
So know we've all learned an important truth. Wednesday morning was supposed to be the time when we gleaned more about these allegations and how they affected Lewis. Instead, the only takeaway was something far less predictable. When it comes to the NFL, it's not about what you know or actually can prove. It's literally about just one thing: how big you really are.