Minutes after the Baltimore Ravens beat the New England Patriots to advance to the Super Bowl, Seth Meyers, the head writer for “Saturday Night Live,” tweeted: “Baltimore vs. San Francisco! Brother vs. Brother! The Wire vs. Full House!”
The message linking Baltimore, “The Wire” and the Ravens resonated nationally with more than 3,000 retweets. Terrell Suggs repeated the connection while speaking at Super Bowl Media Day in New Orleans.
There is a shared identity among the Ravens, “The Wire” and Baltimore, analysts say. But it’s not as clean and simple as Meyers’ social media potshot might suggest.
At the center of it is the complex issue of race and the complicated persona of Ray Lewis, the face of the franchise for more than a decade. A blue-collar image and perennial underdog status are also part of that identity.
The discussion starts with the athlete NFL Network senior producer Bardia Shah-Rais calls professional football’s “star of stars.” From his “war paint” to his Squirrel Dance to the Under Armour billboards on Interstate 95, Lewis has become not just the face of the Ravens but the media face of Baltimore.
“If you are talking about Baltimore’s image and the role the Ravens play in it, you have to start with Ray Lewis, because he’s been the face of the franchise for so long,” says Nsenga Burton, Goucher College professor and editor-at-large for the African-American-themed website The Root.
“And he is a complicated figure,” she adds, “because initially he was thought of as this thug after he got caught up in that situation at an Atlanta nightclub. But he’s had an opportunity to make himself over in the same way that the city is trying to make itself over. People can identify with someone who has made some poor choices and has tried to change his life and has really done that. Typically, blacks are not allowed to reinvent themselves in the way that Ray Lewis has been. See Michael Vick, right?”
In rooting for Lewis and the Ravens, viewers are rooting for Baltimore and their pride in its renaissance as well, says the founder of The Burton Wire, a website focused on the African diaspora.
“We’ve had to work hard to overcome perceptions that Baltimore is a city that’s overridden by crime and a lot of apathetic, angry black folks,” she says. “And those us who have worked to overcome that see Ray Lewis’ investment in the Ravens’ winning as being similar to our investment in Baltimore.”
For the record, Baltimore’s population is 64.3 percent African-American, and crime — though high — has been in decline the last 10 years. While Fortune 500 companies have left the city, there have been major development in Harbor East and genuine revitalization in neighborhoods ranging from Hampden to Canton.
Further, many of the manufacturing jobs that have disappeared in Baltimore, as they have in cities across the country, are being replaced by 21st-century workplace opportunities in one of the most vibrant university, research, medical and nonprofit sectors in the nation.
Nevertheless, a negative and racially charged perception of the city is furthered by critics like state Del. Patrick L. McDonough, the Baltimore and Harford County Republican who in May distributed a news release with the headline: “Black Youth Mobs Terrorize Baltimore on Holidays.”
Analysts say you cannot have an honest discussion of the Ravens, Baltimore or “The Wire” without talking frankly about race. But honest talk about race is often hard to find in the media.
“Some people are uncomfortable, I would argue, with black people being the face of anything,” Burton says, sounding a note heard regularly in discussions about those on the right who question the legitimacy of President Barack Obama as the face of the nation.
“I mean, outside of the Ravens, how many teams even have someone who is black as the face of the franchise?” she asks.
Not any of these other playoff teams: the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers or Indianapolis Colts.