Aaron Hernandez, the former star tight end of the New England Patriots NFL football team, was found hanging in his cell yesterday, and shortly thereafter, he was pronounced dead. Hernandez was serving a sentence of life without possibility of parole for a murder of which he was convicted, and reports from prison officials are that he had written the phrase "John 3:16" across his forehead before hanging himself with his bed sheets. That verse promises eternal life to all those who believe in Jesus Christ. That last fact is significant because it suggests that Hernandez was a person of faith, and that in itself begs the questions of what kind of a man he was in reality, and how he got that way. Hernandez had a multi-million dollar contract to play football professionally, and he had a daughter, whose mother he was engaged to marry, as well. What would make a man with so much do something as odious as commit murder?
I was, at one time, a college administrator, and in that capacity, I became the campus judicial officer. Our school had a national champion athletics department that won at least three national titles just in the eight years I was there. Those championship teams also provided some of the fodder for my judicial activities. What I noticed then, and what I have noticed both before and since, is the sense of entitlement that seems to be imbued in athletes starting from the first signs of superlative potential. Their menial sins are forgiven as a matter of course, and the concept of consequences for acts committed quickly falls by the wayside. There have been stories of prodigies falling--not just athletes, but actors and actresses, politicians and even superior students--for as long as I can remember going back to Marvin Barnes, Fatty Arbuckle, Leopold and Loeb and even Donald Trump, whose business practices have always been dubious, and who knows how many others. But today, sports seems to produce most of the misguided celebrities who go astray, and it is a national trait that produces them. We are obsessed with competition, and winning...at any cost...justifies allowing these young people to wallow in a kind of impunity that convinces them that they are above the law. I would argue that Aaron Hernandez's final words were scrawled on his forehead in a last attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of others, death being the only refuge from his misdeeds that he could find. In the end, Hernandez seems to have recognized that the fault was not in his stars, but in himself, to paraphrase Shakespeare, but in reality, he was destined to be what he became. He did have a history of misbehavior, like many other successful amateur athletes, and though the fact that his misconduct culminated in a murder makes him nearly unique, the that led him to the crime started when he grew to be bigger than the other boys and discovered that he could catch a football and knock other boys down. The adults around him not only extolled his prowess, they cultivated in him, albeit unintentionally, a belief that he could not be touched because no matter what he did as a boy and later as a young man, he never paid a significant price. It was a lesson learned from repetition, more of the lack of reaction to malfeasance than because of the deeds he committed themselves.
My point is that our culture has become one of vicarious success. We live through our sports heroes and other celebrities, and we therefore forgive them everything...even the unforgivable. And by doing so, we ensure the destruction of some of them. When they fall, we think of their condign punishments as just deserts and never consider the fact that we taught them to do what they do by rewarding them for doing so. It is a trend not unique to this country; soccer, for one sport, produces its own bad boys world over. But we hold ourselves out as exceptional. What that suggests is that we are obliged to deal with this problem first, loudly and effectively for the benefit of the world around us both here and abroad, and perhaps, we should start with our athletes...when they first play in little league or pee-wee football.
This problem belongs to all of us. When we pay exorbitant sums to go to professional ball games, we reinforce the notion that a superior athlete has a value that justifies a disproportionate price for the rest of us to pay so that we can enjoy his prowess vicariously. We drop everything to watch and listen to them on television and in movies, on CD's and DVD's, even elect them president, and then we wonder why they can't seem to get their lives together. We are the reason why as much as they are.