In a move that had been expected ever since Ray Lewis announced his retirement, ESPN formally hired the star linebacker on Wednesday to serve as an on-air NFL analyst.
Lewis was one of the NFL's most bombastic, polarizing figures over the past decade, with his murder trial and pregame theatrics serving as a counterweight to his on-field dominance and two Super Bowl championships. While Lewis unquestionably excelled at the game itself, it's uncertain whether he'll have a successful — or even passable — career on air.
ESPN, obviously, thinks he'll be great, and is treating the hire as a major coup. In making the announcement, ESPN said it was betting that Lewis' long career — he played 17 seasons in the pros, an unusually long run for an NFL player — meant he was uniquely qualified to provide insightful analysis.
"One of the most accomplished players in NFL history, fans will be drawn to his knowledge, experience, and, of course, the passion he always exudes for the game," John Wildhack, an ESPN executive vice president, said of the move.
The Baltimore Sun's Kevin Cowherd is similarly optimistic that Lewis' intensity would translate well to his new role.
"He'll be taught how to make his points directly, how to interact with the others on the set, when to talk, when to shut up completely," says Cowherd. "If the network consultants are smart, they'll let Ray's passion for the game and his amiability shine through and not be stifled by a lot of show prep."
Lewis' passion extended beyond the field to his training regimen and rigorous game preparation, which is why he was able to remain relevant in the game for so long even as he grew older. If Lewis brings that same work ethic to ESPN, some believe he's bound to do well.
"That type of drive to succeed is why he will probably have plenty of success in his new career as well," writes Bleacher Report's Tim Daniels. "While it will probably take some time for him to adapt to breaking down what happened on Sunday instead of taking part in it, he should eventually find a comfort zone."
Lewis' baggage, however, is nothing less than gargantuan. He's loathed by many who think he's a self-centered blowhard, an impression that has been bolstered by frequent religious preaching.
And Lewis will always be linked to the murder trial. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice charges for misleading investigators about his role in a fatal stabbing in 2000. Some believe he may even have been the murderer himself, and let members of his entourage take the fall.
ESPN reportedly weighed whether that alone would make Lewis too controversial for TV.
Lewis, who played his entire career for Baltimore, could also struggle to remain objective in his assessments and coverage. Accusations of bias are frequently tossed at broadcasters — think Joe Buck with baseball — and Lewis may find it hard to keep his love of the Ravens in check.
"Ray Lewis Bias Opinion Hits ESPN Airwaves," proclaimed a headline from SportsTalk Florida.
Lewis, with his boundless charisma and passion, will undoubtedly be a major presence on the air. Yet it remains to be seen whether that presence will add anything to the coverage, or merely give detractors yet another reason to keep hating on Lewis for years to come.
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