On TV, religion is regularly mixed into sports. Just how many Baltimore Ravens did you hear on CBS thanking God after they beat San Francisco to win the Super Bowl on Sunday?
There have been some uncomfortable sports-religion crossovers in Utah, including then-BYU basketball coach Roger Reid telling a recruit he’d “let down 9 million Mormons” by going elsewhere; BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall comparing his players to Book of Mormon warriors; or former BYU receiver Austin Collie talking about how “when you’re doing what’s right on and off the field” that “the Lord steps in” and “magic happens.”
(Although, to be fair, no one bats an eye when that sort of thing is said at Notre Dame.)
But religion has never been used more cynically than during Shannon Sharpe’s pregame interview with Ray Lewis. Sharpe was overmatched; CBS should have assigned an actual journalist.
Lewis has never explained his involvement in a 2000 double murder. The bloody suit he was wearing at the time was never found; he pleaded guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice; and he testified against two of his friends, who were acquitted.
To his credit, Sharpe pointed out that survivors of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker have said they find it difficult to watch Lewis “being celebrated by millions” and asked, “What would you like to say to the families?”
“It’s simple,” Lewis said. “God has never made a mistake. That’s just who He is, you see.... To the family, if you knew, if you really knew the way God works, He don’t use people who commits anything like that for His glory. No way. It’s the total opposite.”
Lewis argued that, based on his success, God was sending a message that he was innocent. Because no criminal has ever found success in sports or made a lot of money.
It was shocking. Appalling. And Sharpe didn’t follow up.
He also didn’t ask Lewis to identify the “man who looked me in my face and told me, ‘We know you didn’t do this, but you’re going down for it anyway.” Sharpe asked about the payoffs Lewis gave to the victims’ families, but he didn’t question Lewis when he equated those payoffs to his other charity work.
“So don’t just take that family and say I gave money to that family, because I’ve given money to thousands of families time and time again, just to find a different way to help somebody through a rough time,” Lewis said.
It’s not charity if you’re doing it to stave off civil lawsuits.
Sharpe didn’t raise the issue of the recent reports that Lewis used a banned substance to help recover from a torn triceps, although CBS noted that the interview was recorded before that further bit of embarrassment came to light.
And it was Sharpe who embarrassed himself and CBS by calling his interview “a testament to how this man has transformed his life.”
It took Boomer Esiason to challenge Sharpe’s hero worship by calling the issues surrounding Lewis “complex.”
Sharpe, visibly angry, shot back, “How is it complex?”
“He was involved in a double murder,” Esiason said. “And I’m not sure he’s ever given the answers we were looking for. He knows what went on there.”
That none of that occurred to Sharpe is a reason CBS needs to replace him. Or, at the very least, assign real reporters to do that kind of interview.
Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.