A Very Personal Relativism

Ray Lewis is a great football player – surely among the best linebackers ever to play in the National Football League. After the plea deal that dismissed the murder charge he faced in the January 31, 2000 death of a man at a bar in Atlanta, Mr. Lewis found faith in Jesus Christ, which he loudly proclaims in pre- and post-game speeches, even quoting Scripture, although some of his citations seem interpolated.

On the Tuesday before Sunday’s Super Bowl, in which Lewis’s Baltimore Ravens will face the San Francisco 49ers, Sports Illustrated broke the story that during rehab this season for a torn triceps muscle Lewis took a spray supplement derived from deer-antler velvet – essentially a steroidal substance banned by the League. The magazine says its story is based in part on a (recorded) telephone conversation between Mr. Lewis and the head of the “lab” that provided the supplement. (As of this writing, that recording has not been publicly aired.)

Ray Lewis is adamant that he has never taken a banned substance. And, it must be said, he has never failed a drug test.

And on that same day, Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez was accused – again – of using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), an assertion he denies, as he had when such charges were leveled a few years ago and to which he subsequently confessed guilt.

Notre Dame linebacker Manti T’eo, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, admitted recently that he knew some weeks before the story broke that his much-publicized love affair with a young woman, Lennay Kekua, who allegedly died just hours after T’eo received news of his grandmother’s death, was actually a hoax perpetrated by a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Mr. Tuiasosopo, a fledgling actor, has given interviews in which he swears to have been the voice of Ms. Kekua, although audio experts say the voice in messages left by Kekua on T’eo’s voicemail definitely belongs to a woman.

And we cannot leave out the recent revelations about and from cyclist Lance Armstrong, whose past lies about doping went so far as to destroy the careers and reputations of those who dared to tell the truth about him.

Quick recourse to denial has become the default posture of public figures who find themselves exposed in a new world in which electronic media capture their weak moments and in which the suppression of truth has become ever more difficult.

While it is true that Ray Lewis has been accused by a prestigious journal of taking a banned substance, it’s one for which the NFL has no test, so no action is pending against him.

Ray Lewis: a Raven full of passion

Of his taunting of Mr. T’eo, Mr. Tuiasosopo explained his decision to end the affair by killing off Ms. Kekua:

They would break up, and then something would bring them back together, whether it was something going on in his life or something going in Lennay’s life – in this case, in my life. I wanted to end it, because after everything I had gone through, I finally realized that I just had to move on with my life.

There is in that statement (made to TV’s Dr. Phil McGraw) indications of some sort of sociopathic rationalization, but there is no remorse for having perpetuated a fraud. There is as well a less than subtle claim of virtue for having ended the “affair” . . . after all that Tuiasosopo “had gone through.” (It’s interesting to note that Dr. Phil has said Tuiasosopo admitted to being homosexual. How much more convoluted can this story get?)

And watching Mr. Armstrong speak with Oprah Winfrey about his past sins, one had the unsettling impression of a man speaking about an entirely different person. (This was true too of A-Rod’s 2009 confession about PEDs.)

Whether it’s a president or a legislator angrily denying illicit sexual liaisons, baseball players steadfastly denying steroid use in testimony before Congress, a football player spinning tales about a soul mate he never laid eyes on, or a cyclist making a third-person confession to America’s high priestess, there is an increasing tendency (common throughout society) to a very personal kind of relativism. Relativism isn’t just a cultural phenomenon; not just the result of substandard education or poor catechesis. It’s Original Sin.

It’s okay to lie, if the lie is true for you. After all, your actions – which are justified by your needs – will only be misunderstood by others if spoken of truthfully. This is often reinforced by enablers. How many times did we hear Bill Clinton’s defenders assert that the president’s lies were justified, because the matter under consideration was “just sex”?

In some sense, it has ever been thus. When Yahweh gave the enumerated tablets to Moses, number nine was the prohibition against false witness. Or, as it is expressed in Proverbs (6:16-19), God hates: “a false witness who breathes out lies . . .”

But in a subjective media age, the Eighth Commandment has taken on a whole new relevance. Depending upon who is judging, one man’s sin is another’s righteousness. What matters is passion not probity. The attitude of the liar when exposed isnt shame but megalomaniacal sulking.

Ray Lewis may be innocent of doping, and utterly sincere when he says, as he did at the Super Bowl media day, “My only purpose in life is to find different ways to help people and encourage people and make our world a better place.” However, if more evidence comes out and Lewis is caught in a lie, he’ll still insist he’s not culpable, because he has convinced himself that, because the deer-antler extract is undetectable, and because he judged it essential to his recovery, which itself was necessary to fulfill his God-ordained gridiron destiny, using PEDs cannot be a violation of his personal covenant with God.

But here’s a prediction: If he ends up testifying before Congress, he won’t tearfully obey the Eighth Commandment; he’ll stoically invoke the Fifth.

Postscript: Readers may find a column by ESPNs Bill Simmons, published after this one, of some interest.


Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.