By Jason Keidel
It’s rare for an athlete’s death to be so coated in controversy, or clashing impulses.
What are we supposed to feel about Aaron Hernandez? Sadness? Sympathy? Horror? A cocktail of each?
The moral compass doesn’t direct his way, because he never had one.
But the timing is odd. To kill yourself days after you’ve been acquitted of a double-murder. And while the murder charge that put you in prison is currently under appeal. When you’d just seen your sweet, untainted daughter.
Was it an act of mercy? To spare the Pats, his people, his progeny of his haunted aura and legacy? Or was it the final, ultimate act of violence in a life swathed in it?
It’s not proper to blame his behavior on a thorny childhood. Many young men (and women) emerge from hardscrabble streets, ghettos, projects or trailer parks with their dreams and souls intact. Indeed, by all accounts, his brother, D.J. Hernandez, from the same ‘hood and house, matured into a fine young man, with none of the same sick compulsions. None of the violence or despair or disregard for human life.
What are we supposed to feel about Aaron Hernandez? Anger? Disgust? Disdain? A cocktail of each?
Hernandez’s agent said there’s no way he would do this to himself. It wouldn’t the first time a man killed himself in prison with ample, unspoken help. Does it even matter? Legally, sure. But Aaron Hernandez died the moment he decided someone else would die, the moment his narcissism opened the portal to the power to kill, to play God. The irony, of course, is the men who wield such pernicious power do so because they feel so bad about themselves.
Hernandez hanged himself the day his former football mates flew to Washington, for a grip and grin with the U.S. President. Forget the politics, all the splintered stories about who attended, who didn’t and why. Hernandez could have — should have — been on that plane, that bus and that lawn in front of our most revered residence. If you need more proof that we are products of our decisions, Hernandez is the quintessential example. When life forks, we have a choice to make. Hernandez had several options. He chose poorly.
What are we supposed to feel about Aaron Hernandez? Confusion? Contempt? Fury? A cocktail of each?
Stephen A Smith made an interesting remark this week. As someone who grew up on the streets of New York City, long before they became sterilized by gentrification, Smith said he was quite grateful to the “thugs” on his block, the hustlers and dealers and those who do their business in the midnight alleys of the drug trade. He said not only did they keep him from falling into the potholes of temptation, but also that they abhor men like Hernandez, who decided to be a thug, a gangster, when he didn’t have to.
It may feel counterintuitive, but it has its logic. Some folks, by dint of DNA, of nature or nurture, just won’t ever see the sunlight of regular life. They aren’t swathed in self-pity; they simply play their tattered cards. But Hernandez had the guidance of perhaps the greatest college coach of the last 30 years (Urban Meyer) and knelt at the gridiron altar of the best NFL coach since Vince Lombardi (Bill Belichick). He caught passes from the greatest quarterback of this, if not any, era (Tom Brady), whose obsession with mental and physical health has become legend.
You could not ask for better coaches, colleagues or mentors. Not to mention his employer, Robert Kraft, widely regarded as the most giving and gracious in the sport. And it seemed that Kraft adored Hernandez, and all but adopted him in New England, an adoption that came with a $40 million contract to play football for the gold standard team in sports.
So it’s hard to pity the man, by any objective measure. Perhaps Hernandez suffered some chemical quirks that made him subtly or wholly unsuitable for normal life. Perhaps those very impulses or synapses that rendered his brother, D.J., allergic to gang life didn’t exist in Aaron. Through the mysteries of human chemistry, Aaron Hernandez found comfort in violence, in pain, in rendering it upon others.
What are we supposed to feel about Aaron Hernandez?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. He could not assuage the souls he destroyed. Not in this life. The next life is beyond our control. But maybe those who are still around may find some peace, now that they need not fret over a man who could not be peaceful.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.
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