By Jason Keidel
So now the fallout from the nuclear tight end, and his former employer from his memory at light speed.
Rolling Stone has stirred the pot with a gripping feature on Aaron Hernandez, adding to the surreal saga of a great athlete gone wrong, and affirming the notion that no miscreant breaks bad in a vacuum.
He needs a confluence of events, the needle bending all the way from nature to nurture. A rotten childhood helps, as do cash, cachet and enablers. And the New England Patriots want no part of that last one. Which is why they cut Hernandez the second the cuffs clicked on and he was charged with murder.
Many consider New England the exemplar of pro football, the shine on the shield. Many would have you believe that wearing the Patriots uniform not only imbues you with special athletic splendor, but also biblical virtue.
While the team would have us believe that drafting Hernandez and then releasing him were part of some larger, empathic narrative, the truth is pro football is a zero-sum affair. And both actions were an adjunct of that truth.
Let’s be honest, the Patriots’ sense of honor is commensurate with their ability to win without the splash of sin on their logo. We recall that they also drafted Hernandez and gave him a $40 million contract extension last year. Where was the righteousness when they forked over that $12 million signing bonus?
Bob Kraft and Bill Belichick, the king and prince of the Patriots, cut Hernandez to cover their behinds as much as uncover the truth. This doesn’t make them foul. This doesn’t make them fine. It makes them normal.
The Patriots took a chance on Hernandez and got burned. Standard fare. Throw a dart at the NFL map and you’ll find a team doing the same. Even my beloved black and gold — the Pittsburgh Steelers, perhaps the most adored and revered franchise in football — have dealt with dirty goods on occasion. Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes are hardly Papal candidates. Neither are Albert Haynesworth, Chad Johnson, Donte Stallworth, Randy Moss and Corey Dillon: all dubious characters whom the Patriots have given the ever-exclusive “second chance” afforded to those with special physical prowess.
This doesn’t make Bob Kraft a bad person or owner. For all we know, he’s a great guy and greater boss. But he is not these things because he cut Hernandez. Kraft said he and his club were “duped.” The Rolling Stone piece suggests that the Patriots were hardly blindsided, and found that Belichick was so keen on keeping his team bulging with Pro Bowl talent, he “signed so many players with red flags they could have marched in Moscow’s May Day parade.”
The article also talks about confrontations between Hernandez and Belichick, during which the coach threatened to cut the chord, to trade or release the troubled player. The magazine also asserts that Hernandez was constantly high and was radioactive with attitude and paranoia. Duped, indeed.
Hernandez was a creep when the Patriots drafted him, and they knew it. Why else would someone of his obvious, abundant talent get passed over until the fourth round of the draft? He’s got the skill and will of a top-ten pick. Teams far less gifted and virtuous as New England heeded the red flags and passed on him.
New England took his talent over his legal and moral disposition. Since he was a teen, Hernandez seems to have interpreted the law with a very liberal lens. So be it. Just stop pretending they didn’t know it.
It’s inherently American to confuse victory with virtue. We assume someone is good because he’s gifted, that a team adheres to high standards because of their place in the standings. In truth, the Patriots have been a model franchise largely because of their franchise quarterback. The difference between good and great is as arbitrary as a Mo Lewis blast on Drew Bledsoe, opening the door for a slow, lanky QB from Michigan. Tom Brady took care of the rest.
There has always been an implicit caste system in pro sports. You have the iconic tale from Jimmy Johnson, who cut an inconsequential Cowboys linebacker for falling asleep during a meeting. When asked if it were Troy Aikman who snoozed on the session, Johnson famously said he’d nudge Aikman’s shoulder and gently whisper him to lucidity.
But not if he’s smoking angel dust, which isn’t exactly Five Hour Energy. Most of us thought the lethal drug was the province of the ’70s, somewhere between bell-bottoms and clogs. According to the profile, Hernandez was hitting that most dubious doobie, and had the extensive, expensive nightlife comparable to the most heralded writer in Rolling Stone‘s history: Hunter S. Thompson.
Whatever doesn’t come out in the wash is revealed in the rinse. There’s no chance Hernandez’s malfeasance was missed entirely. Not with the conga line of former cops working with NFL teams. Not with more scouts than Stonewall Jackson. Not living in the locker room crucible six months a year.
It’s nearly impossible to buy the “duped” defense. We’re supposed to believe that Bill Belichick, who made his name as a defensive savant who studies more film than Roger Ebert, and spies on the enemy like the KGB, didn’t know that his electric yet toxic tight end was up to no good? And we’re supposed to believe that Bob Kraft built an empire by ignoring detail?
You can call the Rolling Stone piece poppycock. The Patriots, of course, are doing just that. They ardently refute much of the story, particularly the part that has Hernandez fearing for his life and, after sharing his fear with Belichick, was told to find a safe house.
We can parse the particulars all day, but the truth is somewhere between his deeds and his roots. New England is no more responsible for Aaron Hernandez’s crimes than the rest of us. Let’s just stop the evangelical praise for a team that acted in concert with its conscience, or lack thereof. They signed and then cut Hernandez because they thought each move was good for business.
The Hernandez story, tragedy, and horror has all the flavors to sooth our ravenous, voyeuristic palate. But while digging into his life, we forget that he’s charged with taking another.
Odin Lloyd’s family would be right to wonder why we care what makes Aaron Hernandez tick, or why the Patriots are so self-righteous in releasing him, or why media members (like me) pound on the Patriots. There’s only one victim here, and it sure isn’t any of us.
Maybe we’re all part of the apparatus that allows people like Aaron Hernandez to prosper. We’re so obsessed with winning that we ignore the journey, and the fact that if you’re no good off the field it doesn’t matter how you perform on it.
To the victor belong the spoils. But what if the victor is spoiled?
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